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Big data and the 2015 UK General Election: digital democracy or digitally divisive?

The success of Obama’s election campaign in 2012 and its use of technology in producing an innovative and engaging campaign have had global ramifications. This campaign was characterised by its ability to capture and record the voting public’s personal data to deliver targeted messages to specific voters. As one former Obama campaigner told us, ‘We stopped thinking in terms of "soccer moms" and started thinking in terms of Mary Smith at 37 Pivot Street, alongside John Jones at 38 Pivot Street’. These US elections are widely considered to be a watershed moment for big data campaigning.  

What is ‘big data' campaigning?

Big data campaigning involves the collection of data to give politicians a bigger and more detailed picture of voters. What had once been done with pen and pencil is now being done in real-time and at a staggering pace thanks to innovative data technologies.

Data is gathered and compiled to create a complex profile of localities, and individual voters. Different sources such as private polling, membership logs and door-to-door canvassing are logged and fed back to party HQ. This information is then combined with location and voter ID information from the electoral register. Corporate datasets are also fed into this system. Politicians want to know what motivates voters, what they value and how they feel about key issues; big-data gives them an unprecedented insight into voter’s attitudinal beliefs, core values and concerns.

UK political parties have taken notice of this trend and have invested heavily in data talent and technology. The conservatives recently snapped up Jim Messina and the Labour party hired David Axelrod; both high-level managers of Obama’s former campaigns. To compliment these big names, the top three parties have also sought innovative data management platforms. Labour is using a version of Nation Builder software and retooled its Contact Creator System, while the Conservatives are attempting to rebuild their Merlin system in-house. The Lib-Dems have perhaps the most robust system in the shape of the Voter Activation Network (VAN) - the same platform Obama used in 2012.

Such activities haven’t gone unnoticed, and a raft of campaigners and press are predicting a new ‘digital election’ in 2015. However this term comes with a caveat, when we talk about ‘digital elections’ we tend to talk about how political parties will use social media to reach a wider audience, organise supporters, attack opponents and issue rebuttals. The fact that the parties have embraced social media to a varying degree is, in reality, only the public face of a wider movement towards digitally enabled campaigning tools.

The Effect

Not all votes are equal; in contested constituencies the political data war is waged more fiercely than ever running up to the general election. Political parties need to know the ins and outs of local voting tendencies and the potential to swing marginal seats where it matters. Collecting and analysing big data helps accurately predict the behaviours of constituents and the electorate. Who votes, who needs to vote, for which candidate, why? What makes people tick, and importantly, what makes them act? This involves segmenting and geotagging voting areas; overlaying the spatial landscape with data driven meaning. Campaigns are aiming to marry the offline and online personas of voters. This means when the next politician canvasses your community, they can pre-determine their angle of attack and have an arsenal of data to allow a targeted approach to vote winning on the ground. Time and effort are precious resources, and if a voter seems statistically unlikely to change their voting habit, or if they are an entrenched supporter, it may not be worth the politician’s effort to call on them.

On the other side of the coin, data driven politics could facilitate grass roots democracy and greater understanding of voter concerns. Politicians are often labelled as detached from voters (think of numerous pint brandishing exercises in recent attempts to ‘connect’); the use of data could turn that on its head, forcing responsive policies and representative politics.

The Challenge

Where will this data come from? Data is collected by all and sundry; none more so than digital corporates looking to cash in on consumer trends by advertising the right products to the right people in the right place. But what happens when this data is used to socio politically profile voters and influence elections?

Winning elections is big business, the Obama and Romney campaign spent $6 billion which worked out to $30.33 per second per vote throughout the election campaign. The recent Indian elections saw a surge in businesses offering big-data analytics and new digital tools to identify, profile and reach voters. There has been explosion of political startups trying to give politicians that vital edge in the ground war.

In 2010 UK parties alone spent £31 million and this figure does not include spending by individual candidates, or any other spending outside the election cycle. With UK parties already pumping resources into their voter database, the role that corporations will play in elections is burgeoning. Their data is invaluable to political parties and is traded, which throws up a plethora of legal and ethical data protection questions.

MPs and political parties are subject to the same data protection legislation as everyone else according to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Additionally, legislation such as The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 has added to protection measures alongside the work of the Electoral Commission.

The challenge is to understand how parties are using data and where that data is from. Should government data be used to inform party political decision making and campaigning on the ground? Is this already taking place in the UK, and will we (the voters) know how our personal and commercial data is being used to understand and influence our voting trends?

Monitoring of data use in party politics must catch up with broader big data use. There is great potential for big data to tap into unheard or voiceless communities and apathetic populations. Responsible data use in politics can be democratising and empowering. Irresponsible data use will have protection and privacy implications that could further alienate voters and damage limited trust in UK politics.


George Windsor

George Windsor

George Windsor

Senior Policy Researcher

George was a Senior Policy Researcher in the Creative and Digital Economy team.

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Shane Murphy

Shane Murphy

Shane Murphy

Research Assistant

Shane was a research assistant within the Policy and Research team.

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