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Big data and the election

As the 2015 General Election has nearly reached the dénouement, commentators are calling this general election the most data-driven election in UK’s history. While it is accepted commercial practice for businesses to collect and use personal data to inform decision-making and to target customers more effectively, personal data has not previously been used in this way by political parties. However over the last few years this appears to have been changing.  

The 2012 Obama presidential campaign was a landmark moment for data-driven campaigning and it appears to have influenced the way the UK political parties are operating during the 2015 election. The Conservative party has recruited Jim Messina and the Labour party has hired David Axelrod, who were both high level managers in the Obama campaign.  The parties have also invested in new technology capable of processing vast quantities of data.  Labour is using Contact Creator and VoterID, which has been coded by its volunteers. The Conservatives have a database called Merlin, which has been developed by EMC Consulting and the Liberal Democrats are using a system called Connect.

In the lead up to the polling day, the parties are obviously guarding their strategies closely, but we have considered how political parties have been using personal data and the legal implications of doing so.

Sources of personal data

The most important source of data for political parties is data that has been provided by the voters themselves. This can include data that has been collected from door-to-door canvassing, party membership records and private polling. Historically these different types of volunteered data have been kept separate. A key strategy of the Obama campaign was to combine these different types of volunteered data. To do this, Obama’s campaign team created Dashboard, an online organisation tool which collated and combined voter lists, donor lists and party volunteer lists.

Social media data is another invaluable dataset during election time.  As social media data is not created for the purpose of political research, it can provide a useful insight into individuals’ natural and uncensored thoughts and motivations. Whether this data can be accessed by politicians depends on whether the users have permitted their content to be made available to third parties. Typically Twitter content is publicly available while Facebook content is more likely to be subject to closed or private settings.  

Uses of personal data in politics

The parties frequently use the data for polling purposes – namely, to provide insight into individuals’ political opinions. Sentiment analysis is often used to assess public reaction to a particular event, such as the televised leadership debates. Data from Twitter is analysed to look for volume of tweets and the sentiment of the tweet – the combination of these two factors generates a score for each of the parties. However the value of this type of analysis is uncertain as only 49% of the population use Facebook and 24% use Twitter. Also not all social media users generate content and not all social media users are eligible to vote.

As discussed, Dashboard, the online organisation tool used by the Democrats, was an important tool in the last US presidential election. Campaign volunteers could sign into Dashboard using their Facebook account meaning that the campaign team could access the volunteer’s Facebook friends. The campaign team would then connect up information about the volunteer’s Facebook friends with information about the friends’ voting history, such as whether they were registered to vote, whether they may need persuasion or whether they strongly supported the other candidate. So instead of asking volunteers to send a viral message to all their Facebook friends, the Obama team asked volunteers to target four or five friends who would most benefit from personal encouragement.

Social media has also been used in order ways to encourage political participation. In the 2010 US Congressional Elections, Facebook collaborated with political scientists to see if they could encourage apathetic voters to vote. Certain Facebook users were shown an icon containing a link for looking up polling stations, an “I voted” button that the user could click to show to his/her Facebook friends that he/she had voted in the elections and the profile pictures of up to six friends who had clicked the “I voted” button. Other Facebook users were shown a generic “get out the vote” message or no message at all. This experiment showed that voters who were notified that their friends had voted were more likely to vote that those that weren’t. The role of Facebook in election campaigns has been noted the by UK political parties as it was reported that the Conservatives were spending £100,000 per month in Facebook advertising.   

Another tactic used by the Obama campaign team was to use personal data to create models to show whether individuals were likely to support Obama.  Using these models, the campaign refined the way it communicated with potential voters. Voters were rated on a scale depending on their likelihood to support Obama and the likelihood that they would turn out at the polling stations. So if an individual strongly supported Obama, but was unlikely to turn up to vote, the campaign would try to ensure that the person made it out. These voting models were also used to build profiles of the individuals that would be likely to support Obama and so TV adverts were broadcast at a time to have the most impact on undecided voters, rather than generic premium TV slots. In this way, the Obama campaign used personal data to be more strategic and cost-effective in how they targeted voters.

The three major UK parties all use raw data from the Experian Mosaic database which classifies households and postcodes into different categories based on lifestyle and affluence (for example, affluent professionals, older individuals, people with children and careers). This allows the campaign team to focus volunteer canvassing time on voters who fall into a demographic that is more likely to vote for that party.  We have seen this targeted approach used in the recent by-elections.  Data analysis has shown that less affluent voters tend to be more sympathetic to UKIP’s message, which may explain why the Conservatives focused their attention on the more affluent areas like Rochester, rather than Strood.  Nigel Farage has openly stated that he used “data mining” techniques for his two by-election wins and if he had used these techniques before UKIP would have been more successful.

Regulating use of personal data in the UK

In the UK, political parties have to adhere the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), which implements the EU data protection directive.  Personal data means data relating to a living individual who can be identified either directly or indirectly from the data or from the data coupled with other information held by the same organisation.  The Information Commissioner’s Office (the ICO), who regulates the use of personal data in the UK, is aware of the increased use of personal data by political parties and has investigated complaints made by members of the public who are unhappy with the marketing methods used by the parties. This has resulted in the ICO issuing guidance about how political parties should be using personal data. The ICO views political campaigning, which includes the promotion of the aims and ideals of a political party and appeals for funds, as direct marketing. Therefore the normal direct marketing rules which apply to companies will also be applied to campaigning by political parties.  

Under the DPA, where an organisation collects personal data from individuals, it should clearly inform the individuals how it will be using their personal data and who is responsible for determining how their data will be used (i.e. who is the data controller). In other settings, this is often termed a “privacy notice” or a “privacy policy”. Political parties are not exempt from these rules and therefore they need to notify voters on the doorstep that their data will be used for profiling purposes, for sending marketing messages etc. In practice, this rarely seems to happen. Also from a voters’ perspective, it may be unclear who the data controller is in relation to personal data collected by campaign volunteers. Is it the constituency party or the national organisation that decides how the personal data is to be used? Voters may not know who to contact if they wish to exercise their rights, such as amending their data, preventing using of their personal data for direct marketing purposes etc.

While the Obama campaign may have used “tell a friend” and other viral campaigns to tap into volunteers’ social networks, it is much harder to use such a technique in the UK. Under the DPA, consent of individuals is required in order to use their personal data. So where a party asks a volunteer to forward the party’s messaging or promotional materials to his/her friends who have not consented to that contact, the party would be encouraging the volunteer to break the law in order to promote its political campaign.

Profiling voters also has data protection implications in the UK. The DPA deems information about an individual’s political opinions as sensitive personal data. Sensitive personal data is subject to additional protections under DPA. Where demographic information and other data is used to infer the voters’ political opinion, the party is processing sensitive personal data, regardless of whether that inference is accurate or not. The use of sensitive personal data requires the explicit consent of the data subject.

The effect of the DPA may mean that this general election is not as data-driven as its US counterpart.  In addition to the legal implications of misusing personal data, irresponsible data use can also severely damage trust and alienate voters. However used appropriately, big data can enable political parties to hear the views of and communicate with underrepresented groups and apathetic voters, allowing the parties to shape their policies to benefit a wider cross section of the country. So responsible use of personal data in politics can be an empowering force in society. 

For further information please contact Nicola Fulford.