How Technology will Change the Political Process

By Alan McGlade | Forbes

FORBES - Recently I wrote about politics as a major American business enterprise with a revenue base that could hit the six billion dollar mark in 2012. I asked where the technological innovation was to support a business of that scale. Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media which is a group that tracks the integration of technology and politics, shared his thoughts with me. We discussed how technology is being employed in politics and by whom, and what it means for future elections and the governing process. Here is a distillation of our conversation.

Most campaign money is funneled through a network of established political consultants. They largely use these funds the same way they did decades ago, by making massive television buys. There are several reasons for this. First, the consultants generally retain a 10% commission on ads purchased so this is an incredibly efficient way to earn large sums of money. Moreover, it hasn’t yet been proven that online persuasion is more effective than bombarding prospective voters with enough commercials to move the polls or influence what happens on Election Day. There is every reason to believe, however, that this evidence will emerge.

There are already a variety of initiatives to efficiently collect and apply data to political campaigns. These are being driven by a new generation of political technology companies that, for the most part, are offshoots of existing operators in the political persuasion business.  Many were direct mail companies that were already using voter databases and found it relatively straight forward to go to political funding sources and pitch them on investing in and using a new platform. Dozens of big data companies designed to serve the political persuasion industry such as NGP Van, Aristotle, and Resonate Networks can be found by looking through federal election filings for technology expenditures.

So how do they do it?

All registered voters are collected in a publicly available, central database which means that political software companies can easily identify potential voters, their location and party affiliation. This data is then cross referenced with information that can be sourced from Experian, infoUSA and other large consumer data mining companies that collect public records such as mortgage and bankruptcy filings. There are also a variety of sources for geo-coded demographic information and the political parties themselves track whether a particular voter has signed up for email alerts, visited a political web site or has donated money. A significant amount of relevant data can be scraped from social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. All of this information is combined to build individual profiles on every potential voter.

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