THE BLOG
27/08/2015 14:02 BST | Updated 27/08/2016 06:59 BST

Data Is a God-Like Power - And Our Political Parties Are Taking Note

Using all this data brings a myriad of implications, not least the increasing atomisation of voters by political parties. We have already briefly explored this. What I didn't mention was how Obama's operation would send door knockers to specific doors as the data they gathered told them how many people in a given street they needed to convince.

We produce an awful lot of data. To be precise, we churn out 2.5 exabytes of the stuff every day (2.5x10*18). Exactly how this information is used gives rise to much debate, one which centres on how our data is collected and the ways in which it is subsequently used. (Imagine trying to store every word ever spoken by all the human beings that have ever lived. If you store all these words in text form, you'd need 5 exabytes of storage space. Ref: here and here. Annoyingly, Huffington Post's blogging technology doesn't allow for embedded references.)

What I wondered recently was how politicians and political parties use personal data. There seem to be three main reasons: (a) mobilise their own voters to get out and vote; (b) target voters they need to convince in order to win more support; and (c) attempt to raise money from their supporters.

Speaking about (b), do you know precisely how political parties do this, perhaps the most crucial task that parties perform around election time? Well, you can probably recall a time when you were repeatedly bothered by people knocking on your door asking how you intend to vote at the upcoming election (unless, of course, you fall into the vast majority of the population who don't live in a marginal or swing area - in which case, sorry, you don't matter). After a chat, they quickly categorise you (either by giving you a number, usually from 1 - 10, or by lumping you into a group like "friendlies" denoting propensity to back their party) and feed that information back into central command.

This whole deal just got more sophisticated. It started in the United States during Barack Obama's campaigns. Obama's team took the data from door knockers and combined it with information gathered online (think Facebook and Twitter) in order to build targeted, and extremely effective, operational plans (ref: here). Once his last campaign was over, Obama and his team did not want to lose all this valuable data - so they kept it. It's now in the hands of Organizing for America being put to use for the stated purpose of furthering Obama's presidential ambitions (with mixed results...).

It's unclear to me exactly how well informed individuals, who signed up in the heyday of Obama's campaign, were that a couple years down the line their information would still be used. Similarly, I've received an email alleging that a large amount of data changed hands after the Scottish referendum that would raise serious questions about user consent (not to mention fairness - more on all this when I've done some digging).

Using all this data brings a myriad of implications, not least the increasing atomisation of voters by political parties. We have already briefly explored this. What I didn't mention was how Obama's operation would send door knockers to specific doors as the data they gathered told them how many people in a given street they needed to convince.

Such detailed insight into the voting intentions of the population, and on such a wide scale, is unprecedented. It affords the holder of the information God-like power to command the political battlefield (and at least the Big Guy upstairs takes Sundays off). When we look to the elections of the future, the best determinant of a party's success will be the answer to this question - "How good is their data operation?"