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Strata Week: Data-driven politics

Big data's role in the US presidential election, trends shaping the future of data, and extenuating consequences of the Megaupload case.

Here are a few stories from the data space that caught my attention this week.

Big data, big politics

In the aftermath of the US presidential election, much attention has been focused on Nate Silver’s art of predicting the election results with data. Some looked at it from a coverage angle and how Silver’s work in the spotlight will affect the process of covering elections in the future. John McDermott reports at AdAge that Silver’s work will help shift the “nebulous aspects” of reporting that focus on “feel” and “momentum” to reporting that is anchored in facts and statistics. ComScore analyst Andrew Lipsman said to McDermott, “Now that people have seen [statistics-driven political analysis] proven over a couple of cycles, people will be more grounded in the numbers.”

Which also shows the attention Silver attracted may serve to help democratize big data as well. Tarun Wadhwa reports at Forbes that the power of big data has finally been realized in the US political process:

“Beyond just personal vindication, Silver has proven to the public the power of Big Data in transforming our electoral process. We already rely on statistical models to do everything from flying our airplanes to predicting the weather. This serves as yet another example of computers showing their ability to be better at handling the unknown than loud-talking experts. By winning ‘the nerdiest election in the history of the American Republic,’ Barack Obama has cemented the role of Big Data in every aspect of the campaigning process. His ultimate success came from the work of historic get-out-the-vote efforts dominated by targeted messaging and digital behavioral tracking.”

Michael Scherer at Time has an in-depth look at the role big data and data mining played in Obama’s campaign as well. Campaign manager Jim Messina, Scherer writes, “promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means” and hired dozens of data crunchers to establish an analytics department. The team put together a massive database that merged information from all areas of the campaign — social media, pollsters, consumer databases, fundraisers, etc. — into one central location. Scherer reports: “The new megafile didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals.”

Scherer’s piece is a fascinating look at how data was put to use in a successful presidential campaign. It is this week’s recommended read.

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