The Big Debate over Big Data

This past Monday, Syracuse University hosted three distinguished leaders in politics, digital media and information studies for what quickly became a heated discussion about the merits vs. pitfalls of “big data” and its role in our political system.  Ashley Bryant (State Digital Director of Ohio for the 2012 Obama Campaign), Professor Paul Morarescu (School of Information Studies) and Professor Grant Reeher (Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs) differed greatly in their analysis of how big data can affect U.S. politics, but one thing was wholeheartedly agreed upon by all three: big data is here, and it is here to stay.

 What is “Big Data?”              

Simply put, big data refers to the monumentally large amounts of information that are created due to the increasing use of the Internet and social networks.  Check out this infographic by Mashable for a visual representation of the trend.

Why care about it?

In a world where understanding our fellow citizens seems impossible, big data makes it possible.  Skilled analysts can sift through mountains of digital information and break it down into information and trends that can be used by marketers, public relations people or any other communicators.  What is more valuable than having hard data to back your communications campaign?!

What does it have to do with politics?

In order to effectively target messages toward a ‘persuadable’ group of likely voters, campaigns use the data we provide online about our thoughts, behaviors and predispositions.  This could be information a campaign asks you for directly through surveys or other techniques, or it could be information obtained less overtly.  While Professor Reeher seemed uncomfortable about this targeting of a campaign’s messaging, arguing that it could make politics less honest and more manipulative, Ms. Bryant remained firm in her idea that the use of big data only informs the ways in which a message is targeted, not the message’s content itself.

As a public relations practitioner myself, I tend to side with Ms. Bryant, since I believe in consistent and honest messaging across all communications with targeting only changing the positioning of each communication.  Which camp do you agree with? Let me know in the comments below!