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In the Next Federal Election Big Data Will Make the Difference

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David Gould via Getty Images
David Gould via Getty Images

This year marks the 42nd Canadian federal election. In the current political context, it is generally understood that information is power.

According to the managing editor of Harvard Magazine, Jonathan Shaw, in his recent article: "Why Big Data is a Big Deal," with all of our digitally connected tools (from cell phones, social media assets, sensor equipped trains and cars), more data has been collected worldwide in the past two years than what has been collected in the past 5,000 years combined -- this enormous quantity of information contributes to what we know as Big Data.*

However, this data is only made powerful when it can be properly cultivated, analyzed and shared with people who can take that information and make it actionable. This reality is important for decision-makers running the country, for political parties, as well as for our youth voters, among others.

In this context, there are 1.7-billion millennials in the world, with approximately nine million in Canada alone -- these are people between the ages of 15 and 30. However, in the 2011 Canadian Federal Election, only 38.8 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 voted.

According to Elections Canada's 2011 National Youth Survey Report, the two main reasons cited by youth as to why they didn't vote are: personal priorities (being busy with school, family etc.), or they didn't have enough information about parties, candidates and issues.

Of course, beyond these, the reasons are vast and varied as to why our national youth vote keeps shrinking -- with few obvious answers available as to why.

In an effort to contribute to this ongoing conversation, the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Ottawa Hub hosted Shaping Davos this past January. Ottawa was selected as one of 40 cities globally to host a series of events (a local event and a virtual broadcast) about Open Government and Citizen Engagement as part of the Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos.

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Keynote speakers, panelists and the Ottawa Global Shapers during Shaping Davos, left to right: Peggy Taillon, Moira Wolstenholme, Mercedes Stephenson, Robert Greenhill, Amy Mapara, Maryantonett Flumian, Giovanna Mingarelli, Paul Heinbecker, Bryan Smith, Hugues Boisvert, Maria Habanikova, Robert Onley, Komal Minhas and Ilona Doherty.

The local event was moderated by CTV Power Play host, Mercedes Stephenson, which was followed by the virtual broadcast to Davos-Klosters via satellite with CBC Power & Politics host, Evan Solomon.

One of the issues which we explored at the local event was how Big Data could be better harnessed by government organizations, political parties, amongst others, to encourage youth to vote.

As a hyper-connected digital group, there's a breadth of data being created by millennials in Canada every second in the form of countless, often location-based, small activities (Tweets, pins, posts, text messages, etc.) that are being shared across social networks and portable devices. MIT's Professor Alex 'Sandy' Pentland, a pioneer in mobile information systems calls this: dynamic data.

An examination of this dynamic data will help us see in real-time what young people are doing, where they're going and who they like (or not), for instance. In fact, this data could even be analyzed to explore the activities that are shaping their perceptions and expectations of governments and political parties.

What's more, if we could better understand the reality of what's happening with youth at the grassroots level, by the data they're creating on a daily basis, it could make it a lot easier for governments, political parties and key stakeholders to create authentic, evidence-based campaigns -- rooted in the actual needs of young people in Canada -- that have real, actionable value.

Efforts to support this process are now under way, with several companies -- including the Toronto-based startup ThinkDataWorks, and my own Ottawa-based mobile startup, PlayMC2 -- which are exploring how to track and maximize the value of open and dynamic data.

Ultimately, as far as civic participation is concerned, very little of the dynamic data collected or analyzed about Millennial engagement in Canada will matter if young people remain disenfranchised from the electoral process.

In the next federal election, the final indicator as to whether or not we've used the power of Big Data effectively is if our collection, analysis and leadership in creating authentic voter engagement strategies successfully get young people to the polling stations.

*Big Data is defined here as bridging traditional quantitative data sets -- like census data collected by our governments -- with previously unquantifiable, qualitative information -- like social media updates -- produced by masses of people interacting with one another across various technologically enabled tools.