The landscape for gathering information around public health and public opinion has seen some dramatic changes. Some of them are obvious, that Twitter reflects in real time virtually any event that is happening, for example. Some are less so because they involved an evolution from old to new. An example of the latter can be garnered from a recent articlein Wired magazine. Christopher Murray, at the time an official at the World Health Organization, found a number of year ago: “…that official reports and analyses of those main problems didn’t quite reflect medical reality. In fact, the numbers—many of which came from advocacy groups, seeking money and attention for specific causes—didn’t make sense.” The numbers literally didn’t add up. He found that if you added up the different reports, people were dying three times over. Murray’s answer was not just to get better numbers but to create a measure, the DALY, disability-adjusted life years that makes it possible to compare relative health on a world-wide basis. The metric has undergone a number of changes since it’s invention in the 1990’s, to generate the current iteration Wired notes: “A super-computing cluster is busily whirring away at the University of Washington—supported by more than $100 million in funding from the Gates Foundation—crunching information from sources like hospital and police records to output more than a billion data points.” Murray and his colleagues have had a lot of success getting countries to use the data to improve health outcomes. Australia used it to revamp its health system and improve life expectancy, Columbia used it to make changes that reduced gun deaths.
Contrast this success story with another data-gathering enterprise that is having some difficulties. I’m referring the state of political polling in the United States. No less an authority than Nate Silver has lately been lamenting the state of polling: “But lately, there have been a series of relatively poor outcomes. Polls of the U.S. midterms last year badly underestimated the Republican vote. And there have been mishaps in other Western democracies. Last month, polls of the U.K. election — most of them conducted online — projected a photo-finish for Parliament instead of a Conservative majority. The polls also had fairly poor results in last year’s Scottish independence referendum and this year’s Israeli general election.” Silver has his own diagnosis and recommendations on the subject. Some people and organizations are starting to look beyond current polling methods. The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) has produced a report that offers this view: “Public opinion research is entering a new era, one in which traditional survey research may play a less dominant role. The proliferation of new technologies, such as mobile devices and social media platforms, are changing the societal landscape across which public opinion researchers operate…The ubiquity of social media and the opinions users express on social media provide researchers with new data collection tools and alternative sources of qualitative and quantitative information to augment or, in some cases, provide alternatives to more traditional data collection methods.”
Social Media continue to play a larger and larger role in how we collect data to gauge all sorts of outcomes in everyday life. Having a strategy for getting your message out and digesting the information about you that’s out there is increasingly important which most companies – and now many politicians – have recognized. But success is not guaranteed. While Christopher Murray’s crunching of that billion data points led to a simple prescription for improved health in the US: eat more fruit, it remains questionable whether crunching a billion data points will give us a prescription for better political outcomes.