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Technology and Political Campaigns: Not Just Robocalls

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Elections are a critical time at which citizens connect to their politics. From the train station platforms in the early 20th century, today's campaigns reach directly into Canadians' homes through the telephone, TV and the internet.

As Canadians respond to allegations about the misuse of robocalls in the 2011 federal campaign, it's critical that such technologies are not confused with tactics. The public debate must consider the potential these technologies offer political leaders to more effectively reach the citizens they serve.

As the recent US election demonstrated, technology and data are changing the way campaigns are fought and won. As several articles detailed, Barack Obama's team's superior ability to mine data on voters' demographics and psychological preferences, and target campaign messages accordingly, appears to have had a decisive impact on the election result.

Research also suggests these approaches can also get more people to the polls, a welcome occurrence to anyone concerned about the generation-long decline in voter turnout.

If present trends continue, 21st century campaigns will be less about mass messaging through mass media, and more about tailored messages delivered to an individual voter. Campaigns will continue to gather more knowledge about voters' preferences, and hone their abilities to translate this knowledge into compelling communications and -- ideally -- public policy options.

Here in Canada, however, discussions on the use of technology and "micro-targeting" have been decidedly less hopeful in tone.

The robocall scandal has rightfully cast a shadow over the rise of data-driven campaigns in Canada. Persistent reporting has revealed that automated calls with misinformation about polling station locations may not have been random, or the work of a prankster, but instead selected with the purpose to confuse and frustrate specific voters.

Of course, in all the rightful concern over the alleged misuse of robocalls, it is important that the debate in Canada does not lose sight of the potential for new technologies to be used for good.

As this story unfolds, there is an opportunity for Canadians to weigh in on how they expect political parties to conduct campaigns, and if we get it right, how parties can be powerful organizations to reconnect citizens to politics.

To aid that discussion, it's worth reading one of the most comprehensive analyses of how technology is reshaping American campaigns, captured in The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, by journalist Sasha Issenberg.

This balanced account, and some of the early lessons of the American experience, will be helpful to informing a more fulsome Canadian discussion. To quote Issenberg: "Finally campaigns are learning to quantify the ineffable -- the value of a neighbor's knock, of a stranger's call, the delicate condition of being undecided -- and isolate the moment where a behaviour can be changed, or a heart won. Campaigns have started treating voters like people again."

Issenberg will be in Toronto on Tuesday November 27 to discuss his book. Limited seating is available if you reserve here. Those not able to attend can follow the liveblog, and videos of the talk will be available following the event, and will also be aired on CPAC.

Details on liveblogs and videos will be available on the day of the event here.

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