Bringing Big Data to political analysis

  • National Newswatch

Professionals who engage in the time-consuming process of developing strategic plans -- for their political parties, companies or clients -- need to maintain a fine balance between obtaining comprehensive information and preventing overload.  These strategists and media analysts will be interested in a recent technology developed by Gnowit, an Ottawa-based tech startup in the web-monitoring and intelligence space.Gnowit's software automatically finds and makes sense of relevant information within vast quantities of online content.  The company's innovative Data Intel Engine is able to provide users with an at-a-glance understanding of the entire media landscape surrounding a particular topic or field of interest.The system learns to place every article it finds into an appropriate category; in this way, it thinks like an objective political analyst, albeit one that can process several million articles in a matter of seconds. Articles are found and processed in real time, which means results are changing continuously.The insights generated by the engine will be valuable for those who work in politics, social research, government and public relations, and finance (to name just a few areas).One of Gnowit's goals was to provide technology that reduces information overload – the burnout that occurs when our brains try to process large quantities of data.Election Trends & InsightsThis election, it's not just political analysts who are dealing with information overload.  Thanks to the constant barrage of political news coverage, voters are struggling to get an accurate, big-picture view of the issues.  As an experiment, Gnowit recently applied its artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to data from this year's federal election, running all online articles that dealt with Canadian political issues through its Data Intel Engine.The content of these articles was automatically scanned for mentions of federal parties and analyzed for the major topics it contained.  This information was then outputted in an intuitive visual format – a chart conveying the 'media mindshare' of major election topics, as well as the mindshare of these topics as they related to individual federal parties.How often is the Conservative party mentioned in articles about the oilsands? In discussions related to the economy, does the NDP come up more or less frequently than the Liberals? The answers to these questions can be determined using Gnowit's impressive software.The image above is an excerpt from a more comprehensive 'issues chart'.  It highlights the overall party coverage as compared to the baseline interest of Canadians, as reflected by the media.*The issue mindshare analysis conveys some surprising insights, a few of which are detailed below.1) The niqab issue has been blown out of proportion by the mediaThere has been a recent surge of political stories related to civil liberties in Canada.  News coverage in this area peaked just after the final leaders' debate, which featured controversial exchanges about whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear the niqab during citizenship ceremonies.The biggest spike occurred for general media coverage about the issue, as opposed to coverage that related to particular parties. The issues chart confirms what critics have been saying; namely, that the leaders' debate sparked conversations that were more about nation-wide controversy and individual political personalities than party platforms.2) Despite the central role it plays in Justin Trudeau's platform, the Liberals are the political party that is least associated with public infrastructure.Nobody can accuse the Liberal leader of trying to hide the deficits he will run to make his infrastructure investment plan work.  Despite the criticism he has faced from opponents, Justin Trudeau has maintained the need to invest in infrastructure, naming transit and municipal projects as Liberal priorities.It's interesting, however, to find that the number of published articles that link the Liberals to infrastructure-related issues is less than than those linking the Conservative, NDP, and Green parties to the same issues.  Given the current Liberal lead in the polls, it's hard to imagine the party has been shying away from proposals that have contributed to its success. For those who might want to get a better sense of how the media mindshare has evolved, the Data Intel Engine allows users to drill down and examine the data by accessing specific articles in any category.3) Only the Green Party is addressing climate change enough to match the public's interestThe media is discussing climate change more than any federal party, with the exception of the Greens. According to Gnowit's analysis, there are more news stories being published about climate change that don't mention any of the federal parties than stories that mention both climate change and the Conservatives, climate change and the Liberals, or climate change and the NDP.What does this mean? It suggests there is enough public interest in climate change to warrant significant coverage of the issue, even outside of the context of the election.Given the ideology of the Greens, the high volume of news coverage connecting them to this particular topic is not surprising. But when it comes to environmental issues, the other parties may not be reading the public's interest in this issue correctly.The Unlimited Potential of Data

Gnowit's election project illustrates the power of big data. When analyzed correctly, large quantities of information can provide penetrating insights to guide real-world decisions.

Big data has already begun to revolutionize sectors such as healthcare and telecommunications; now it is poised to play an increasingly-important role in the professional lives of political strategists, government relations practitioners, and public affairs and communications professionals. For experts in these fields, the technologies that parse and analyze this data will provide access to a whole new world of insight, ushering in a new era of political analysis.James Anderson is an Ottawa-based public affairs consultant and partner in National Newswatch.  He has been involved in political campaigns at all levels.