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One side effect of Barack Obama’s Webcentric presidential campaign is that it helped turn the Democratic National Committee’s voter database–information on the political leanings and interests of millions of U.S. citizens–into a far more potent political weapon. In the final two months before Election Day, 223 million new pieces of data on voters accrued to the database, and the DNC now holds 10 times as much data on U.S. voters as at the end of the 2004 campaign, according to Voter Activation Network (VAN), a company based in Somerville, MA, that builds front-end software for the database.

Such information could prove vital for future elections in that it shows where to allocate resources most effectively–particularly when it comes to voters who are wavering between parties–and what kinds of messages will appeal to specific voters. While some of 223 million pieces of data added in the final stretch of the campaign are not particularly useful (it includes canvassers’ or callers’ notations that a voter “refused to talk” or “wasn’t home”), overall, it’s a gold mine, says Mark Sullivan, cofounder of VAN.

“The data collection in 2008 was a quantum leap from where we were in 2004,” Sullivan says. “It also means that we start the 2010 cycle with vastly more knowledge about who voters are, and how we can best communicate with them, rather than feeling like we have to start all over again.” This information could perhaps even help Obama govern if the DNC decides to ask average Americans to contact members of Congress about specific policy efforts related to, say, energy, health care, or the Iraq War.

The VAN database–Sullivan would not describe its exact size, but there are about 170 million registered voters in the United States–can be used by all Democratic candidates in national or state elections. In the case of primary campaigns, new data collected by a Democratic combatant is kept by the candidate and added to the national database after a winner emerges.

While most campaigns add something to the database, the biggest contributor this year was, of course, the Obama campaign. For example, tens of thousands of times, volunteers logged in to Obama’s social-networking site, (MyBO), and downloaded small batches of voter names and phone numbers, dialed them up, and followed various scripts. The aim was to learn their political and issue leanings, encourage people to vote for Obama and to ask supporters to make sure they go to the polls. These responses were recorded by the volunteers using a Web interface, adding to the database instantly.

In the final four days of the campaign alone, four million such calls were made through MyBO, says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, cofounder and CTO of Blue State Digital, which built MyBO as well as the interface to the VAN voter list. “This was just using our tools in that short window of time–never mind what the actual field organization was doing on the ground,” he says. MyBO was hardly the only source: the DNC, local campaign offices, traditional phone banks, and canvassers also added data in various ways.

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Credit: Technology Review
Video by David Talbot

Tagged: Computing, Web, election, Barack Obama, database systems, data integration

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