October 31, 2012, 3:14 PM — Thanks to the Web, social media and an exploding culture of sharing pretty much anything online, advocacy groups and political campaigns have unparalleled access to vast amounts of new and very detailed psychographic data on voters interests, hobbies, lifestyles and political leanings. (See "What politicians know about you" in part 1 of this series.) Organizations are grappling with how to best exploit these vast troves of unstructured data without getting burned.
The use of unstructured data can help organizations micro-target to specific groups of swing voters and identify messaging that works. But integrating all of that online voter data with traditional offline sources is proving difficult, the return isn't always worth the investment and then there's the creepiness factor: Outreach efforts can backfire if voters feel that their privacy has been violated.
Catalist is a consortium of progressive organizations that maintains a 500 terabyte database of information describing both registered and unregistered voters in the U.S. Like other data aggregators in the political space, the organization is bringing in large volumes of unstructured user data from the Web to match up each citizen's online persona with their related demographic data and voter records.
"What we've seeing this cycle is the integration of online with offline," as well as incorporating different data sources, from voter history to donation history to general consumer data, says John Simpson, director of media at Blue State Digital, a digital strategy agency that specializes in analytics.
Campaigns and advocacy groups are pulling in financial data from aggregators such as Experian and consumer purchase data from multiple sources and tying it all back to voter registration data. The integration of online data is done through cookie-base matching. "How that gets matched up is not clear. It's a black box," Simpson says, adding that "the quality and level of confidence in that matching, to me, is debatable."
Matching up the data is indeed a difficult task, agrees Cathy Duvall, political director at the Sierra Group, which combines its own member data with information provided by Catalist. Online data tends to be tied to a user-generated @name alias, as in the case of Twitter; shielded by privacy policies, as with Facebook; or associated only by a cookie ID. In some cases, she says, the data may never be properly associated with the correct individual.