November 12th, 2012 | Comment
As the guy who runs the analytics at PJA, I have been quite surprised by the rise of the data geeks to prominence during the 2012 presidential election. Some of them have even become minor celebrities.
No doubt, numbers crunchers have existed behind the campaign scene for some time, arduously feeding programs into room size computers, waiting for the precious result to be spit out onto greenbar, admired by the few who could decipher it, and then dismissively torn up by some cigar chomping campaign manager.
Speed up a few decades to 2012. Out from under their shells, the data ‘scientists’ this year were on the front lines of campaign strategy, leading dedicated teams in building juicy predictive models that determined the right channels and message for each microsegment of the US population, sparing no expense. And when the smoke cleared, the stories were exciting, the predictions sometimes stunning. “Dismiss us at your peril”, seemed to be the data scientist victory cry.
One angle that the reportage has often covered in the big data meets politics story is the threat that the analyst represents to the status quo. Pundits, campaign managers, and ad guys who go by their gut are being depicted as endangered throwbacks to another era – almost overnight, their way of doing business has become so, like, 2008!
Amidst this sea change, there is still one area where data driven insight has yet to make inroads: the political discourse itself. Like most Americans, I was left wondering how to parse the plans and accusations proffered during the presidential and vice presidential debates. It then struck me that the verbal jabs that candidates perform in public without any data to back them up are, in an odd way, sacrosanct. What demonstration of free speech could ever beat having the president and the guy challenging him make groundless claims against one another while shifting their own positions without apology?
The injection of a data driven truth would only impede the campaign theater, would it not? Furthermore, given the way we as otherwise reasoning humans often suspend disbelief for our political allegiences, I doubt some future debate that’s aided by visual displays of information would change many minds. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, meaning that these “truths” were actually indefensible ideals, needing no proof, no grounding in fact.
I’m as idealistic as the next guy, and possess several irrational points of view that no chart can sway. Yet I think that, in the new age, we need to wonder how long a political vacuum can be tolerated. Given the incredible surges in computing power, data crunching, predictive modeling and visualization, it comes across as more and more irresponsible, if not fiscally dangerous, for any elected representative to stick with short-term, partisan thinking.
Every day we see, up close and personal, how marketing, operational, and financial decisions are being shaped by data at the companies we work at. We’ve also seen that we can, in a data driven society, keep our idealism, our self-evident truths, intact while working across the proverbial aisle to solve the wider issues revealed to us by data.
I therefore predict, without aid of any stats package or visualization tool, that politicians will, sooner rather than later, follow our lead.