Big Data

Election Tech: How campaigns win with big data, and you can too

TechRepublic spoke with the founder of data management tool NationBuilder about how SMBs, nonprofits, and advocacy groups can learn from watching campaigns win with big data.

Image: NationBuilder

Big data is one of the most powerful forces in the 2016 presidential race. In search of likely voters, campaigns focus on specific slices of information, frequently targeting everything from regional demographic stats to personal voting history. Similar to how advertising and marketing agencies use data to find and persuade a market, political campaigns use big data to craft advertising messages, enlist local influencers and canvassers, and target phone calls.

As dis-unified as the candidates are, one commonality is their use of big data management platform NationBuilder. Piles of Excel and CSV files are ineffective, however, without tools that help convert likely participants to active voters. NationBuilder allows campaigns to upload, manage, and interpret piles of voter information ranging from Twitter follow lists, to partisan affiliation and voting history, to demographic data like salary range, marital status, and ethnicity. NationBuilder's platform helps organizations personalize outreach and "build and manage personal relationships at large scale," said Founder and CEO Jim Gilliam.

SEE: Big data and IOT - Benefits, drawbacks, usage trends (Tech Pro Research Download)

Gilliam spoke recently with TechRepublic to help demystify big data, and explain what SMBs, universities, nonprofits, and advocacy groups can learn from presidential campaigns.

What types of data are used by campaigns?

Campaigns mostly care about three types of people: Voters, volunteers, and donors. Knowing how often someone votes, or whether they've volunteered before, or given to campaigns is pretty common. Campaigns also rely heavily on volunteers to gather additional information from voters like what issues they care about and whether they are supporting the campaign. Sophisticated campaigns with a fair amount of money will sample that information and run data models against their entire database, score potential voters on the likelihood that they will vote for their campaign, then target their outreach and relationship building.

You're a tech-industry outsider and were an early pioneer of crowdfunding. How did you convert an indie media hit to startup success?

My background actually isn't in politics, it's in making documentaries. I helped make the first film about the Iraq war back in 2003 and a film about Fox News called Outfoxed. Because these were the kinds of stories that the traditional media wouldn't touch, it meant we had to get really creative with how we distributed them. So, purely out of desperation, we hijacked the concepts of political organizing and took it online. It totally worked, and we continued to develop the model at Brave New Films. We were the first to ever raise money for a film online, a quarter of a million dollars back before the term "crowdfunding" or Kickstarter even existed. We called it "people-powered film." In 2009, I started working with a congressional candidate and realized that what she needed was exactly what I had hacked together with a bunch of different tools for the movies, so I started building NationBuilder from scratch, a unified system purpose-built for leaders of all kinds to organize.

Image: NationBuilder

How do you manage security, and how did you build the database infrastructure?

For our customers, their data is everything, and keeping it safe is a big reason they choose NationBuilder. Because we are nonpartisan, and frequently have the majority of candidates on both sides of an election using our software, we had to design it from the very beginning to be highly secure. While most other companies will host multiple customers in one database, we built the infrastructure to give each customer their own database, making it exceedingly difficult for data to leak between campaigns as we've seen happen elsewhere.

What can businesses and organizations learn from how campaigns use social media?

The first thing NationBuilder does is turn a leader's email list into people with pictures and bios. That alone radically changes how leaders view their supporters. They are humans, not entries in a database. This is key as you start to build relationships at scale. Then, NationBuilder helps leaders listen to how their supporters talk about them and interact with them on social media. And finally, it helps them reach out to new potential supporters they probably didn't know were interested.

SEE: Social Media Policy (Tech Pro Research)

In what ways does big data and online data help inform offline activities like real world marketing?

"Big data" is useless if you can't turn it into real people getting real things done. That's leadership, and is why we are focused on building the tools to serve leaders. With NationBuilder, leaders own their data and they own their relationships, this is key. As Facebook and YouTube make it harder and harder for leaders to reach their followers, the importance of having a direct relationship via email or text messaging will become more and more apparent.

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Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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