NEW DELHI: Who are you? What do you like? What do you buy? What entertains you most? And therefore, what's your likely political preference?
India's two biggest parties - BJP and Congress - are asking and trying to answer these questions. Both are deploying highly sophisticated data-based analytics in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In other words, Big Data is watching you, the voter
On a recent Sunday afternoon, in the lawns of a Lutyens' Delhi bungalow near the upscale Khan Market, some 150 BJP workers gathered to listen to a presentation by a team headed by Arvind Gupta, head of the party's national IT cell. The audience was drawn from among the key campaign managers of the party's candidates from 66 assembly constituencies (of the 70 constituencies in Delhi, four are being contested by BJP's alliance partner Shiromani Akali Dal).
In the course of a two-hour presentation, Gupta ran them through the array of technologies and analytics tools the party is deploying this election in Delhi. The work led by the IT cell, overseen by the party's state in-charge, Nitin Gadkari, is in two domains - one is the use of social media and customised micromessaging (text messages, emails, WhatsApp messages) to reach the voter. The other is a broad range of tactics based on crunching publicly available data for the upcoming elections.
The party's war room for the Delhi election, based out of a ramshackle outhouse converted into a modern 20-seater office in this bungalow, has been asking every candidate to make two appointments - a social media manager and a data-savvy person to leverage a software the party has developed.
The software allows access to a server located in the war room that holds within its digital recesses a great deal of information about some 12 million voters who will decide Delhi's political future, how they voted in the past and how they are likely to vote this time. "India runs three elections - pre-modern, modern and post-modern. In at least 150-160 parliamentary constituencies, the election can be classified as post-modern. In these areas, we are confident that the technologies we have developed over many years now, can make a difference," Gupta said.
This round of assembly elections is serving as the testing ground for techniques being developed by BJP and Congress. According to people with direct knowledge of the situation, the most advanced polling and analytics work is being done by Narendra Modi's backroom based out of Gandhinagar for BJP and a team in Bangalore led by Union minister Veerappa Moily's son-in-law and entrepreneur Anand Adkoli for Congress. The work done by these two teams is secretive and little about their precise nature is known outside of a few senior functionaries in both parties. But data analytics of varying sophistication is being applied at many levels.
The most widespread technique is to marry two sets of data that are in the public domain. One is the historic voting pattern, which is now available for up to the booth level in many states. The other is the voter roll, which many state election commissions now make available online. By marrying the two, candidates can identify the pocket boroughs of their party, the booths unlikely to elect them and the ones that could go either way, or the swing booths.
This helps them decide where to spend how much time and effort. But an analysis of the voter rolls can further narrow this down, and tell a candidate whether or not to spend any time at all on any particular individual. This is an imprecise science, based on surname analysis and application of conventional wisdom about the castes and religions that are traditionally likely to vote for one party vis a vis another.
"Data might be available with a lot of people. It's the analysis that matters," said Sanjay Sachdev, a key campaign official for Arti Mehra, who is contesting on a BJP ticket from Delhi's Malviya Nagar constituency. "The war room has given us the details of the entire electorate. Our booth-level managers try to collect contact information for every voter. We manage to cover 60-80% of the constituency this way," he said.
BJP's Delhi war room has handed over colour-coded voter rolls to each candidate. The red, green and yellow codes indicate, based on a number of factors and local intelligence, how likely an individual is to vote for the party. When a candidate meets the voter and makes a different assessment, he can change the colour code against that person, and it gets updated in the central server. "Data gives you the most dispassionate view, but human intelligence is always more reliable than system intelligence," said Gupta, the IT cell chief.
On the messaging and outreach part, Gupta's team has developed some advanced techniques. When you visit a website of BJP or its various support groups, a cookie (a tiny bit of software) is planted on your computer. This cookie will track your browsing pattern long after you have closed the website and help an algorithm to build a demographic profile based on your browsing pattern. If, for instance, you go from a BJP website to a site on motorcycles and then to a jobs portal, the algorithm will conclude that you are a young male from this particular constituency who is a job seeker. This then helps the system place a contextual ad when you, for instance, run a search on Naukri.com for 'jobs in Delhi'.
A BJP banner ad under the results will say: "There are no jobs in Delhi. India deserves better". Based on your digital profile that sits on BJP's servers, their computers can tailor the message served to you through a text message or email wherever they are able to marry the digital profile with contact information.
This could mean that different individuals in the same household could get messages customised to address their specific concerns.
CONGRESS FIGHTS BACK
While BJP is secure in its domination of the social media space and has started focussing on specialised electoral solutions, Congress has started an earnest campaign to capture lost ground on social media. "We realised that a lot of BJP's dominance is orchestrated and is a result of big spending online. Our approach is different. Ours is volunteer-driven and organic. And we encourage our volunteers to focus on positive messaging and to absolutely stay away from lies, half-truths and canards," said Deepender Hooda, the two-time MP who is heading the party's efforts on social media. Hooda's social media cell has been organising social media workshops.
They will eventually cover 70 cities. Each workshop is attended by 250-300 volunteers. "Now you will find that Congress-related hashtags trend more often because the geographical spread of our volunteers is very wide, from Agartala to Kanyakumari, unlike BJP's, which comes from a few big cities," Hooda said