Tuesday, November 20, 2012

NST Column: US-style data-mining to target voters here?

NEW STRATEGY: Information gathering and predictive models are leading to more specialised messages

I do not know Sallehuddin Ayub. Neither do I know Suhaizan Kaiat. I don’t know them personally, that is. What I know of them is from newspaper and blog articles. But both PAS leaders, and the party’s Pulai division, seemed to know about me. They had sent me a wish via short-messaging system on my birthday two weeks ago.
The following week, I received a phone call from a local opinion research firm. The caller asked if I could spare him 15 minutes or so for a survey they were doing. I normally dismiss such phone-in surveys but when he said it was on Johor, it certainly caught my attention.
After asking several personal questions probably to form the demographics of those they polled, he started asking the survey questions. Ten to 15 questions later, I realised that the survey was skewed towards the constituency I was registered in.
The questions initially centred on issues in Johor including on Menteri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman and developments in Iskandar Malaysia.
Then, he zeroed in on the Umno Pulai chief Datuk Nurjazlan Mohamed and deputy chief Ramli Bohani. The caller was surprised when I successfully named Nurjazlan as the Pulai Member of Parliament and Datuk Osman Sapian as the Kempas assemblyman.
The caller even asked who I would vote for in the coming election. To that I replied, “Who I vote for will remain my secret.”
When the caller also mentioned Sallehuddin, who has been reported to be contesting the Pulai parliamentary and state seats in the coming election, and asked questions on PAS in Pulai and Johor, I connected the dots.
Two questions came to mind: how they (the political party and the local opinion research firm) knew I was a registered voter in the Pulai constituency and where they got my phone number from (The caller, when asked, told me that they sourced it from the phone directory and the firm’s database).
A well-informed friend was not surprised when I told him this. He said all political parties have access to the voters’ registration details. He was however baffled as to how they had obtained my phone number. He doesn’t think that the voters’ registration details include the mobile telephone numbers. His theory was that the party had “mined” the data from various sources including the telecommunications companies and matched it against the voters’ registration details via the MyKad number. Even the MyKad number gives away one’s birth date and the state you are born in.
This can be seen as an invasion of privacy, but data-mining to target voters is being more extensively used now than ever before.
Take the recent United States presidential election as an example. Time magazine reported that the Barack Obama campaign undertook an unprecedented data-mining effort that helped the president “raise US$1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.”
The Obama operation (code-named “Narwhal” for the Arctic whale with a long spiral tusk) merged “information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states” into a single massive database, Time reported.
The Obama team then fed the data into advanced predictive models that allowed officials to target voters with specialised messages.
In Ohio, the Obama team developed a polling-data profile of 29,000 voters in Ohio alone and used this information to follow how various target groups were trending, how they responded to different messages and how events such as the presidential debates were moving the electorate — so they could respond effectively.
The system proved so accurate that Obama strategist David Axelrod declared that “nothing happened on election night that surprised me — nothing. Every single domino that turned over was in keeping with the model that our folks had projected.”
But voters can take matters into their own hands if they don’t want to be targeted by the political parties. You can tell the campaigners not to bother you.
I have on several occasions told telemarketers to strike off my name from their list of people to call or simply not to waste my or their time on the phone conversations but in this case, curiosity got the better of me.

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