“Beyond just improving ordinary interactions like reporting a pothole or paying a parking ticket, government can actually use the information generated by residents to learn about a region’s needs and issues, and ultimately use data analytics to better predict the needs of neighborhoods, to measure effectiveness of agencies, to more efficiently use government resources, and to increase transparency,” she says.
REACHING OUT TO A SPAM-SENSITIVE PUBLIC
On elections, Conn believes two primary problems exist: candidates aren’t able to accurately capture the opinions of the public and therefore don’t know which issues to address during campaigns; and many citizens fail to vote. Traditional outreach methods such as door hangers have negligible effect on voting rates and political engagement, and phone campaigns in the age of cell phones work poorly because people don’t pick up, she says.
Mass emails from politicians and campaign representatives are largely viewed as spam. “That’s a big question – how do we actually reach the voters that we need to reach?” she says. “Most data shows that voters need to be reminded to vote three to five times. It requires a person to talk to them. There is still more to do here in having meaningful, effective conversations with voters that boost engagement and turnout.”
Big-data analysis can reveal which voters need to be reached, what messages need to reach them and when, and how the messaging can best be delivered, whether by phone, text, in-person, social media, or other means, Conn says. “This is important not only in winning elections, but also in potentially reducing exclusion. One of the problems with elections is that due to limited time and resources, campaigns are forced to focus on their base, and often ignore the voters unlikely to turn out, usually young and low-income voters.
“However, with better targeting, campaigns can shift resources away from the people who will definitely vote, and toward some of the communities that might otherwise be ignored, ultimately broadening outreach efforts and increasing civic inclusion.”
APPLYING STARTUP METHODOLOGY TO POLITICS
Digital communications networks built up during election campaigns can also be used between elections, to maintain and increase political engagement, and contribute to the third area of politics in dire need of a tech-driven boost: responsiveness by politicians to constituents, she says. “This is where the feedback loop, the lean startup method, I think really comes into play,” she says. “You elect somebody, and most people don’t communicate with them again until the next election at best, when they communicate with their vote.”
One Congressman whom Conn has spoken with several times is looking to broaden and deepen engagement with citizens, and to surmount the difficulty posed by the size of his large Massachusetts district, she says. When the official holds town halls at his office, for example, people from further afield have trouble attending. “He really wants to find a way to communicate with his constituents, he wants to know what they think,” she says. Partnerships with tech companies could help bring constituents into feedback loops with elected officials, through video town hall events, and face-to-face video meetings, Conn suggests.
Getting people to actually want to engage with politicians and contribute to the political process is another challenge. Conn believes improved feedback loops will help address this obstacle by giving officials a way to showcase to their constituencies their responses to public input, encouraging participation.
A WEALTH OF RELEVANT DATA FROM REDDIT, TWITTER
Also key to the feedback loops is data on constituent bases, Conn says. Content of social media, from tweets to Google searches to discussions on Reddit, can be mined and the results analyzed to assess public views. “We have incredible digital memory,” she says.
Data analytics can help government predict need for services, and target the response accurately, and it can also inform politicians, when they are legislating, about their districts’ needs, she says. However, existing limitations to the creation of effective feedback loops must be overcome, Conn believes. Social media data isn’t cleanly tied to geography, which hinders understanding of region-specific trends or concerns among voters, and there is generally a scarcity of data – even if all the contents of constituents’ phone calls and emails to representatives, town hall and meeting discussions, and op-eds could be put together, many voices would still be absent, Conn says.
“I want to spend my career and my time here just figuring it out,” Conn says. “I believe that people care about their neighbors, people care about their community.”
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