After #Election2015: How can we save Big Data?

My plan to upgrade Nate Silver to make him golden

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Lies, damned lies and analytics

The BBC’s Panorama hired Nate the use of an Airstream data caravan, bulletproofed against the harsh, unforgiving climate of the North of England. They had taken him to play Bingo, hiring a brass band to play behind him. Nate had predicted that UKIP wouldn’t win any more seats – but not that it would kill Labour off. And he went to Devon for clotted cream scones. There, it looked close – but a Tory farmer who always voted LibDem said he’d be sticking with the LibDems. Nate thought this was important: name recognition would save them from a wipe-out. And bookies had the answers – and the bookies backed a Labour minority.

“If the most famous forecaster in the world says it’s too close to call, you can be sure it’s too close to call,” Panorama concluded.

“Look,” I told him. “It’s not entirely your fault. Nobody could have possibly predicted that the English working class would give the warm and lovely middle class people who devised such warm and lovely ideas like inclusivity and sustainability and reviving our run-down High Streets with Polski Skleps such a punch in the face. That’s never happened before,” I assured him, lying through my teeth. “Nobody saw that one coming at all.”

“Oh jeez,” Nate said. He’d been off by about 49 seats. “Those Tories really are shier than I thought.”

“Well, you’ve got the answer right there,” I told the despairing data guru.

“But Steve. There’s no way the polls can ever get the right answer if people don’t want to tell them what it is. We’ve been here before,” replied Nate.

“True. That’s why we have to do something new and radical, and align the data with the final result. If you can’t fix the algorithm, you have to ah... shall we say ‘optimise’ the raw data,” I told him, as I explained my plan.

“Look around you. We’re in an era of radical transparency, where everyone is revealing their most intimate details on social networks. This is the age of the Selfie. Voting today is not fit for purpose. So it needs to be brought into the digital age,” I elaborated.

I could see Nate trying to follow where I was taking him.

“That’s right. The ‘secret ballot’ – or as we shall now call it, the ‘tick of shame’ – is an anachronism,” I continued. “My assistant มาลัย has been working with the Government Digital Service at the Cabinet Office on draft legislation. I expect to see it announced quietly in the Queen’s Speech.”

Replacing the analogue ballot, voters would either update their Facebook avatar or post a selfie using a traceable social media account, reflecting their voting intentions. Nothing else would count.

“There will not be a single shy Tory in the 2020 General Election,” I told him. “You can bet on that.”

Nate let out a huge sigh of relief.

“We’ve saved Big Data analytics. Saved the polling industry. Saved the jobs of thousands of political pundits. People will begin to trust Twitter again. And do you know what’s best of all?”

Nate shrugged.

“It’s digital by default.” ®

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