Guest Blogger 2 – Cian O’Donovan on Big Data

Cian is an activist, technologist and academic.

This blog post was written by Cian O’Donovan, one of Campaign Bootcamp’s organisers. Cian is an activist, technologist and academic. He is former technology director at 38 Degrees, the UK’s largest people powered campaigning movement, where he continues to advise on technology strategy. There he successfully campaigned to halt the privatisation of England’s woodlands, took on big energy companies, and was awed by hundreds of thousands of 38 Degrees members together affecting real change.

Cian researches and teaches at SPRU; Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex. His research interests include the sociology of large technological systems, and innovation for sustainability.

Cian recently co-founded, Ireland’s first people powered campaigning organisation.

This blog post refers to an article from the pre-Bootcamp reading list on how Obama used big data to rally voters. You can read it here. Cian’s questions below are a really useful critical reading guide if you want to plunge into the reading too!

Here’s the link in case you missed it:


Issues to think about:

  • Obama I was all about hope.
  • The good guys had more hope than the the bad guys. The good guys won.
  • Obama I was “data driven”
  • Obama II was about data too.
  • The good guys had more data than the bad guys. The good guys won.
  • The good guys had better data than the bad guys. The good guys won.
  • Obama II embraced the “experimental revolution”
  • Maybe
  • Maybe not


It’s interesting reading back on Issenberg’s piece post-NSA.

Right now, all that data gathering, purchasing, hacking of set-top boxes doesn’t look so innovative. It looks like a playbook borrowed from the intelligence “community”.
Worth considering:

  • Data’s great. Lots of data is even better. If you can afford a team of PhD econometricians it’s better again.

    “His techniques marked the fulfillment of a new way of thinking, a decade in the making, in which voters were no longer trapped in old political geographies or tethered to traditional demographic categories, such as age or gender, depending on which attributes pollsters asked about or how consumer marketers classified them for commercial purposes. Instead, the electorate could be seen as a collection of individual citizens who could each be measured and assessed on their own terms.”

    What do you think?

  • Are voters assessed on their own terms?
  • Or the terms set by the econometricians?
  • And which voters?
  • The ones in battleground states?
  • What about the others?
  • Do voters have agency and power in this view of the world?
  • Has this agency and power increased or decreased over time?
  • “Much of the experimental world’s research had focused on voter registration, because that was easy to measure.”
  • So how in our new data driven world do we tackle issues that are not easy to measure?

Observations and things we might learn:

  • Our assumptions might be wrong
  • Middle of the road Republicans were easier to change mind of than middle of the road voters
  • Different supporters of the campaign were responsive to different messages
  • This is obvious, but maybe tools now available to us means we can target our messages better too.
  • Romney was a “data pioneer” in 2002
  • 10 years later he was using much of the same techniques
  • Lots and lots of effort was spent on allowing people to knock on doors more effectively. They still had to knock on doors.
  • “The scores measured the ability of people to change politics—and to be changed by it.”
  • The question is, are more or less people engaged in democracy now?

    Last thing…

  • If you believe that democracy is better when more people are involved, what are you to make of this?
  • What does “involved” mean to Obama for America?
  • Whose opinions matter?
  • Fundraising matters
  • Why was I asked by OFA if I wanted to have dinner with Clooney?
  • Why didn’t Issenberg discuss this in his article?

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Guest Blogger – Hannah Lowsnbrough

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