Democratic Firm Ties Voter Data to Facebook Friends

This is turning out to be the year big political data. Democratic data and tech firm NGP VAN is unveiling a more robust edition of a tool connecting Facebook to its voter file data. The Texas Democratic Party has already used an earlier version of Social Organizing to reach Hispanic voters under 30 to get out the vote for the party’s primary in May.

The tool allows political groups on the left to find registered voters who are Facebook friends with supporters who log in to campaign sites via Facebook Connect. It’s yet another example this election cycle of voter file data being put to use in digital environments.

“We have the ability to leverage the social graph information that exists on Facebook for campaigns,” said Stu Trevelyan, NGP VAN CEO. Facebook information that is then appended to voter file data is the property of NGP’s clients, said Trevelyan. In some cases, a state party might offer local campaigns access to its NGP data.

“We were trying to use it so [volunteers] could get used to it for the general election…to get the vote out,” said Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Rebecca Acuna. Party enthusiasts logged into the system and received lists of people in their Facebook friend network to call and remind to go to the polls. The initiative, part of the party’s Promesa Project, was considered a test run for the general election specifically targeting Hispanics under age 30 in Texas who had never voted Republican, said Acuna. Phone volunteers encouraged people to come out and vote to support the Dream Act, which if passed would help undocumented youth become eligible for citizenship.

“We think it has the potential to be a game-changer in elections,” said Acuna of the platform. “People respond a lot more when it’s their friends or family calling,” rather than a random volunteer cold-calling a potential supporter, she said.

Others who plan to use the NGP VAN system include Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat running for Senate, and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, said Trevelyan.

A key element of the platform is its segmenting capabilities, which pool Facebook friends of campaign supporters into various categories based on their profiles on the social site. Some might be labeled as potential volunteers or donors, others as persuadable through a phone call, and others not worth contacting because they don’t appear to be sympathetic to Democratic causes or candidates.

According to Trevelyan, NGP stores the Facebook ID when there is a match between NGP’s voter file database and a Facebook friend of a supporter. Only information a supporter’s friends allow the supporter to access on Facebook is available to NGP, he told ClickZ. “We can only match based on the info made available to the supporter,” he wrote in an email. ClickZ asked Facebook for comments on these points, which have privacy implications for Facebook users.

“We take privacy concerns very seriously,” said Trevelyan. “The FB IDs are part of the data owned by the client; NGP VAN does not own them,” he stressed. “We do not transfer any IDs or user data outside our application.”

An earlier version of the tool was used by labor-backed group We Are Ohio in 2011, said Trevelyan. “Tens of thousands” of Facebook relationships were matched to NGP VAN’s voter database for that campaign. According to Trevelyan, usually half of a volunteer’s Facebook friends match readily with the voter file based on names and locations.

Though the system arguably could be applied to inform ad targeting on Facebook it does not appear that any NGP clients have used it for that. The Texas Democratic Party used it to better target mobilization efforts leading up to the May 29 primary. Though Trevelyan said NGP VAN is not focused on using the platform to inform ad targeting, he said, “I think anytime people are connecting people’s records with their profiles…that enables people to do ad targeting.”

The upgraded system also now has gamification elements, letting users score points for taking actions on behalf of a campaign, and displaying a leaderboard with the most active volunteers. On the right, Republican digital firm Engage ties volunteer activities to a game platform that awards them with virtual badges and real-life prizes for doing things like making phone calls or sharing information about a candidate on Twitter or Facebook.

Ultimately, these systems are geared toward helping campaigns track volunteers to get a better sense of who their star volunteers are, and which messages resonate best with certain groups.

An average state legislative campaign would pay around $350 to use the NGP VAN system, while statewide campaigns would pay more, based on the size of the organization or campaign, said Trevelyan.

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