Leveraging Data in Politics

Understanding the precedent set by the 2016 President and what that means for Canada

The 2016 U.S. presidential election and its continuing fallout vis-à-vis data usage, manipulation, privacy—or whichever noun you want to associate with data—sheds light on how data plays an important role in the political arena. In fact, this prominence of data within politics is not a new concept, even though it has only come to light recently through social media and the role played by Cambridge Analytica (more on that later).

According to a study by Harvard Kennedy School (“Political Campaigns and Big Data” by Nickerson and Rogers¹), there has been a significant change in how data has been utilized in politics and, in particular, during election campaigns. Nickerson and Rogers argue that, as recently as twenty years ago, policies were adjusted based merely on poll numbers from “swing” states, and political campaigns used these poll numbers to make informed policy decisions.

Fast forward twenty years, and data has gained even more importance when it comes to politics.  Modern day politics demands gathering mass amounts of data on individual citizens and using data analysts to predict citizens’ behaviour based on their responses to campaign contacts.¹ Electoral strategies are then devised based on these predictive models.

Data Collection in Canadian Politics

Not a Foreign Concept

Having worked for a Canadian federal political party in Ottawa during the most recent federal elections in 2015, I saw for myself how data was useful in micro-targeting voters. Political call banks to fundraise donations and identify socio-political & economic issues of common concern for voters in their local constituencies were managed in a data-driven environment. The collected data was then relayed to campaign managers to make electoral strategies targeted at appeasing the electorates. There was more than the usual

“Can we count on your support for X candidate in the upcoming elections?” 

Drawing the Line

To many, the question then arises that if political parties are using software, political call banks, data analysts, and volunteers to collect data, then why the hue and cry over Cambridge Analytica?

This is where it becomes a question of drawing the line over what is ethical and what is not; what falls within the realm of legality and where we enter into illegitimate behavior. Cambridge Analytica is accused of illegally obtaining confidential information for millions of Facebook users and using that information to build “psycographic profiles” to target individuals for political mileage.²

Implementation of GDPR

It is difficult to see how targeted data collection in politics will stop in the near future. In fact, questions regarding privacy concerns (as they pertain to individual data) will only raise more questions with the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to be implemented by the European Union (EU) by the end of May 2018 (Nadeu, 2018).³ The GDPR came into effect primarily due to public concern over privacy, and businesses face the prospect of hefty fines if they fail to adhere to the stringent privacy laws outlined within the GDPR.

The key focus of the GDPR is accountability and transparency. Organizations will need to prove that the data they collected was done so lawfully and will need to have a paper trail as well as a proper audit for the same. In addition, Article 17 of the “Right to be Forgotten” clause gives EU citizens the jurisdiction to have any of their data deleted without any delays and questions asked (Electoral Commission).

Download the GDPR Factsheet for full details.

Implementation of the GDPR also has ramifications for Canadian businesses that operate in the EU and collect data on EU citizens. The larger picture here is that strengthening privacy laws is something that Canada should also undertake, so that accountability and transparency (without breach of personal and private information) can help protect Canadians from any form of exploitation.




- Public Policy and HR Professional - Testing the waters of Data Analytics

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