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What Does Big Data Mean for This Election?

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My favorite quote from election season 2012 would have to be this one from O'Reilly Radar big data columnist Alistair Croll:

"After Eisenhower, you couldn't win an election without radio. After JFK, you couldn't win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn't win an election without social networking. I predict that in 2012, you won't be able to win an election without big data."

Croll rightly observes that major shifts, particularly in communications technology, leave an indelible impression on the execution of the American political campaign. As a former politico who lived through a searing defeat at the hands of social media, I'm both intrigued and nervous to watch, from the outside this time, as data makes the big difference.

Here's how they're going to do it: Political data companies are buying up scores of commercial data on each of you ( "over 120 data points on 90 percent of Internet users equaling 210+ million people" brags one such outlet). They collect political preference data on samples of their overall population to build predictive models. They then feed their larger set of commercial data into this model and reliably determine if, on what basis, and how you are likely to vote. And then they message the daylights out of you (though in my case, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are following me around the Internet -- I suppose this is a craft still in its infancy).

Kind of creepy, right? And especially so when you consider the situation in reverse.

What do you know about your candidates? About the guys at the top of the ticket -- Obama and his opponent, be it Romney, Gingrich, Santorum or Paul -- perhaps a reasonable amount. What about your senator? Or your representative? Or any other person or office that will comprise over 96 percent of the choices you'll have to make when you enter a voting booth in November? While they know the details of your credit card history, voting history, and Internet browsing behavior, and all of the intimately personal information inherent within, you don't even know their names.

If 2012 is the year of the big data, and data is power, and this power is wielded with such dramatic asymmetry, how is our electoral and governance process still one that can be legitimately described as by the people, of the people and for the people?

If 2012 is the year of the big data, who is leveraging it for you?

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