@LiberalAus push for national rollout of i360, the Koch Bros data analytics Co

@LiberalAus push for national rollout of i360, the Koch Bros data analytics company

The Australian12:00AM April 21, 2018

SA Bureau ChiefAdelaide

The Liberal Party is being urged by its South Australian and Victorian divisions to roll out nationally a sophisticated, data-mining ­approach to campaigning using a US-designed software system that was critical to delivering unlikely successes for Donald Trump in key swing states that won him the election.

The i360 program has been credited with playing a key role in the South Australian Liberals’ success in last month’s state election.

The Victorian Liberals are also using the program in the lead-up to November’s state’s election and their Queensland counterparts are about to sign up.

The i360 program, backed by industrial billionaire moguls Charles and David Koch, draws on data from a range of publicly available sources including taxpayer-funded electoral rolls, census information and social media, as well as internal party databases compiled using the NationBuilder software. It produces intricate profiles of where to find swinging voters in marginal seats and the issues key to winning their votes.

So powerful is the cutting-edge tool that data gathered from a variety of sources on an individual voter can be fed into an algorithm that, combined with information from doorknocking and polling, determines whether they will be micro-targeted in an election ­campaign.

The South Australian Liberal Party was the first outside the US to use i360 in an election. Party sources say it was critical in defeating Labor for the first time in 16 years.

The decision to use i360, developed for the Republicans in the US at an initial cost of more than $300 million, in Australia was a joint initiative of the South Australian and Victorian divisions of the Liberal Party. The SA Liberals are paying about $25,000 a month for the platform and intend to use it again for the state election in 2022.

After losing the 2014 South Australian election by failing to win enough marginal seats, Liberal leader Steven Marshall dispatched his chief of staff, James Stevens, and party director, Sascha Meldrum, to find the best campaigning methods in the world.

Mr Stevens and Ms Meldrum landed on the US swing state of Ohio, which they adjudged to be home to the best centre-right campaigning operation in the world. The duo have been going to Ohio every six months since 2016 for briefings and negotiations on how to adapt the i360 technology for Australia, before flicking the switch in March last year.

“The Liberal Party focused on a number of new initiatives in the SA election including a new ground strategy, new data-driven campaign and new technologies including the i360 platform,” Ms Meldrum said. “We have embraced modern technology in campaigning ... this is critical to ­develop policies that tackle key issues and are able to clearly communicate with individual voters.”

The i360 is fully rolled out in Victoria for the November state election, after dozens of Victorian Liberals including Opposition Leader Matthew Guy visited Ade­laide during the South Australian campaign last month to see i360 in operation.

Senior Liberal sources said the Queensland division was set to sign up for i360, while NSW and the federal party were considering it. The WA Liberals were not ­actively considering it at this stage of its electoral cycle.

“Labor and the union movement have been pretty good at embracing some of the US Democratic party’s capacities, so those in the South Australian Liberal party decided they were going to do that on the centre-right, and it looks like all the other (Liberal) divisions are going to follow suit,” a senior party source said.

“The federal party has not decided yet whether to use i360 for the next federal election but they are looking at it very closely and the thinking is they will — it is a really powerful tool.”

Liberal insiders said an “innovative” way to target swinging voters in marginal seats was better than a previous “scattergun” ­approach.

“We’d much rather spend $10 on a swinging voter than $1 on a strong Lib,” an SA Liberal source said.

“i360 creates the ability, in a seat of 25,000 people, based on a whole lot of data, to accurately say these are the 1000 people in that seat who you need to concentrate on.

“Within those 1000 people, the program breaks it down further into a variety of subsets to say exactly who could be swayed by the right message on childcare, cost of living or education and so on.

“So you can be speaking to 1000 people five times instead of 10,000 people once.

“This is why we actually won a stack of seats with a swing against us.”

Those familiar with i360 stress the program itself is next to useless without accurate and quality data, professional grassroots campaigning and persuasive policies.

But the i360 can also sharpen the focus of a campaign team, increase efficiency, help build internal momentum and boost the confidence of candidates.

Mr Marshall, just like Mr Trump, appeared almost over-confident a fortnight out from election day, despite being neck-and-neck in opinion polls.

Former federal and state Liberal staffer Andrew Coombe, managing director in South Australia of Barton Deakin, global firm WPP’s Liberal-aligned government relations business, said Mr Marshall had an “ah-ha” when traditional polling aligned perfectly with surveys and algorithm projections from i360.

“That seat-to-seat battle, the Liberals won, thanks in part to the new technology, which also proved essential in guiding them through the uncertainty of the Xenophon factor,” Mr Coombe told The Weekend Australian. “Steven Marshall was very confident about halfway through the election campaign. He knew where it was going to be fought, and there was a turning point for him when he got figures from the new and the old sources that aligned exactly and had him on track to win.”

The Liberals, like Labor, also use the NationBuilder software platform, which hosts the websites of both Mr Marshall and Bill Shorten, and helps collate voter information based on Facebook likes and other online interactions.

This platform, along with the Liberals’ Feedback program, operated by party-owned company Parakeelia for its campaign database, has been formulated to sync with i360.

The i360 program has become more controversial given claims that another US-based data-­mining firm, Cambridge Analy­tica, accessed the personal data of 50 million Facebook users without authorisation.

While Australia’s major political parties have denied using the services of Cambridge Analytica, the scandal has forced caution when it comes to exploiting the full potential of i360, due to concerns over privacy.

“In the US, the i360 people can put the entire electoral roll into Google, and then Google will create these advertising sets that find people so that tailored political messages can be sent to them while they are browsing the internet — we could not do that here,” a source said.

Former federal privacy commissioner Malcolm Crompton said that because Australia’s political parties were exempt from privacy laws, they could get away with being incredibly secretive about information gathered on voters and how they used it.

“People should be concerned ... at the minimum the same laws that apply to businesses should apply to political parties,” he said.

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