Big Data

Election Tech: How big data pioneers use open source technology to win elections

Every startup should pay close attention to how presidential campaigns use data to target and activate voters, says NGP VAN VP.

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Image: NGP VAN

Big data wins elections, and in 2016 smart political campaigns rely heavily on data to help microtarget voters and get-out-the-vote. But today's tactics—refined by Cruz, Trump, Clinton, and Sanders—were pioneered by visionary startups like National Field and insurgent campaigns in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

Aharon Wasserman, NGP VAN's vice president of creative and marketing represents a classic startup story in an unlikely place—national politics. He left college in 2008 to work on the Obama campaign. He formed National Field with several friends when his team identified a gaping hole in the market.

"Data at the time was pretty soft," he said in a recent interview. "There were direct mail operations, but most data—demographic information, voting history—was unstructured. We used (at the time) emerging database technology to add structure to millions of voter records."

SEE: Get ready for big data's wild ride (Tech Pro Research story)

National Field's PHP application, MySQL backend, Node.js technology was used during the Obama reelection campaign in 2012, and acquired by NGP VAN in 2013. Today, NGP VAN is used up-ticket and down by every major Democratic candidate, and their technologies & techniques have been embraced by the GOP and several non-partisan data brokers as well.

NGP VAN is the grandaddy of political big data brokers, and is the leading technology tool for Democrats and advocacy organizations. While VAN is a partisan organization, respect for the the company and their technology cuts across partisan and party lines due to the company's innovations.

NGP VAN functions like a CRM on steroids. The tool helps organizations identify, market to, and activate key constituents.

"We help campaigns act upon and utilize the data they collect. And, in turn, help them win elections," said Wasserman. "Lots of the data collected by campaigns isn't so different from the types of marketing data collected by businesses."

What does your technology do, and how does it produce actionable results?

Our various software tools are focused around fundraising and compliance, field organizing, new media, and social networking. The most common image of our tools is often called "the VAN," which is every campaign's bread and butter for locating and contacting voters through door knocking, phone banking, email, ads, direct mail, and social media.

Separate from our VAN tool, NGP is also widely used, and is the primary fundraising database.

Open systems seem to be important to your company, and you rely on a 'Collaborative Data Model.' Explain what that means.

Essentially, it means we pool data-gathering work from around the country. Volunteers for all campaigns work to refine data during a campaign cycle and, after the primary season is over, the results of their voter contact efforts can be feathered together to benefit all [Democratic] campaigns.

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Image: NGP VAN

What data innovations can we anticipate in the 2016 cycle?

This year, we're working with with other companies to build out what we call the "innovation platform." Basically, we have a vision of a 360-degree view of voter contact for campaigns. For example, a campaign volunteer will soon be able to knock on a door, record their conversation on our mobile app (called MiniVAN), and immediately send a follow up email based on that conversation—maybe for a fundraising ask, or GOTV reminder, or upcoming event in their neighborhood, or volunteer opportunity.

We just announced a partnership with SpeakEasy, a company out of San Francisco that provides one-click, do-it-yourself direct mail for smaller campaigns that may not have the resources of larger campaigns. Through our partnership with SpeakEasy, clients can easily pull data out of VAN, act on it, and push data back in. That type of integration is critical to our clients.

What can business learn from how campaigns use big data?

Lots of the data collected by campaigns isn't so different from the types of marketing data collected by businesses—it's only the way that data is actionable that is distinct.

READ: Big Data Primer for IT Pros (Tech Pro Research ebook)

Over the course of the campaign, we will continue to perform simple data analysis. We hope to uncover unique insights and find ways business can benefit from campaign innovations.

If you're a data scientist, social media professional, or inquisitive TechRepublic reader we'd love your ideas on how to inspect campaign social media data. Please leave a comment below or ping us on Twitter @TechRepublic.

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About Dan Patterson

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

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