How data is being used in the White House today

Data has been a critical component of US politics and governance since the founding of the republic. The US Constitution requires apportionment of representatives according to the number of citizens, and Thomas Jefferson supervised the first census in 1790.

Today, politicians use big data to precisely target voters and direct turnout efforts. But what would it look like if a data scientist were the commander in chief?

As we’ve seen in the business world over the last several years, operations and decision-making change considerably when organisations deploy big data analytics and implement data-driven strategies.

Corporate executives use big data, analytics and business intelligence tools to identify emerging demand, spot marketplace trends, customise offers, streamline supply chains and much more. And because big data gets results, it will play a greater role in future political decision-making – and not just at the campaign level.

Data in the White House

President Obama famously used big data in his 2008 campaign to successfully identify issues and drive turnout operations, and the techniques his organisation employed have been widely imitated, all across the political spectrum.

Obama was also the first president to appoint a chief data scientist: D.J. Patil, who has been working behind the scenes since February 2015 to pull data together, organise it and apply it.

Recently, Patil has focused on using data to improve the criminal justice system. At a recent event, Patil talked about this summer’s launch of the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, which has a stated goal of disrupting the cycle of incarceration.

Patil also discussed the problem of data silos that exist in police departments and health systems and how sharing information can help people get the intervention they need.

Because of efforts like Patil’s, and the advances in data science that have taken place over the course of President Obama’s tenure in office, it’s probably fair to say that the Obama White House is more data-driven than any predecessor’s administration. But it’s also important to note that this is a low bar since data has traditionally been under-utilised in governance.

A data scientist in charge

Patil’s appointment and efforts are significant, but if a data scientist were ever elected president, data would be even more central in presidential decision-making.

The way a data scientist thinks is typically grounded in numbers, and that’s what drives his or her decisions. As an example, a data scientist or practitioner as president might use predictive analytics to game out decisions such as signing or vetoing a bill.

Data could drive policy decisions around budgeting as well, helping the president and governing team identify gaps and predict outcomes if money is directed to specific areas.

In education, data could help the White House decide if lack of funding is causing schools to perform below expectations or if the problem lies in educational strategy execution so that the team could come up with a better plan.

In foreign policy, the White House could use big data to better understand national sentiment, drive public opinion and identify and predict support for various efforts.

Whether the US ever elects a data scientist as president or not, the use of data in politics and government seems destined to grow, just as it has in the business world. The use of data in decision-making will expand for one simple reason: it works.

The evidence is clear that data is highly effective in helping executives drive beneficial change. That’s true for CEOs of companies large and small, and it will be true for the Commander in Chief as well.


Sourced from Anil Kaul, CEO, AbsolutData

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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