Can the Coffee You Drink Predict Your Vote?

The RBC Emerging Scholars Program is an opportunity for students in each of the five Spur cities to contribute to a national conversation on politics, art and ideas by enjoying and contributing to the inclusive and intellectually vibrant atmosphere of Spur 2014. Below you’ll find an examination of this year’s theme, from an Ottawa Emerging Scholar.

The 2014 Spur festival theme of Signal versus Noise was particularly interesting and relevant to the nation’s capital. Be it the media, government, political parties, private industry or non-profits, everyone in Ottawa survives on information.

If you’re working for a non-profit or a private company, you need to know your market extremely well, and you need to know how government initiatives are going to affect your business.

Political parties need to know everything about us, from how we react to messages, to whether we’re a Mary or a Zoe. After all, whether we drink Starbucks or Tim Hortons coffee has an impact on how likely we are to vote for X party. Increasingly, parties also work hard at maintaining specific images, thus manipulating the flow of information to reporters and the general public.

Government survives on its control of information. During the panel discussion on Media and the Rhythms of Democracy, Paul Wells told a story about a colleague who made an Access to Information Request on how their last request was handled. He compared it to picking up a rock and seeing ants scurry around underneath it in panic. Recent news stories have discussed the federal government’s social media policies, which sometimes involve up to 10 different approvals to get a tweet or Facebook post sent out. Particularly in the case of emergencies, these approvals are only obtained after the crisis has been resolved. It’s no wonder that Canadians feel as though their government isn’t responsive to their needs.

Members of the media are government’s polar opposite. Journalists make their living on extracting information from tight talking points and statements expressly designed by communication professionals not to say anything. If anyone knows how to differentiate signals from noise, it’s journalists.

The rise of the online world has left citizens in developed countries overwhelmed with content from the actors mentioned above amongst many others. Rising professions such as data analysts and Access to Information consultants make their money by doing what everyone else doesn’t have time to do: filtering through the mountains of content and drawing out trends, themes and salient points. Thankfully, the public has journalists to decode what politicians and governments are saying. However, with the overflow of information, fewer and fewer people are turning to traditional media to get their news. After all, if it’s important, someone will tell us, right?

But your average citizen isn’t the only one who has trouble with this information. For one, polling companies are struggling. Dimitri Pantazopoulos discussed the 2013 election in British Columbia as one such example. When every poll suggested that the New Democratic Party would win, the BC Liberals had data to the contrary. While Premier Clark lost her seat, the Liberal Party won a majority. It’s rather concerning that nearly all of the data experts at polling companies arrived at the wrong conclusion in this scenario. If pollsters aren’t managing to deal with Big Data, how can we expect it of the little guy?

To effectively use data in decision-making, we all need to take a step back and think about what we want to measure versus what we are measuring. What does our data really tell us? Just because something is measurable doesn’t mean it’s the relevant variable to use. If you’re discussing maple syrup sales, you’d better make sure you haven’t been counting Aunt Jemima all along. Once we have data, what can we infer from it? Can we realistically take retweets and favourites and make assumptions of future action based on them? Someone coming out to vote for you or protest with you on that basis is just as tenuous as counting on someone who favourited your tweet about forehead tattoos to get one with you.

We live in a noisy world where we have to fight to hear what we’re listening for. If we truly want Big Data and two-way communication to work, we need to start applying many more filters to what content we, as communicators, put out. Content needs to be relevant and well-targeted. Otherwise, the public is going to run out of hearing aids and our megaphones will fall on deaf ears.

Emily Harris currently works for Environment Canada’s Meteorological Services in performance measurement and reporting to Parliament and Canadians. Her work includes strategic planning as well as the collection and interpretation of data from Canadians, clients and the Service itself. Emily previously worked for the Member of Parliament for Gatineau and continues to participate in political activity across partisan lines. She studies in Strategic Public Opinion and Policy Analysis at Carleton University, where she has done research on how individuals communicate around taboo subjects, including racism and bullying. The findings of this research suggested serious flaws in the validity of the data: verbal or written survey responses. The differences in how we filter our opinions online versus verbal communication have led Emily to explore this medium as a data source on these kinds of subjects. In her next year of study, Emily will use social media activity to study attitudes around public health issues, such as concussions.

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