In the political world, the promise of data — whether it’s Nate Silver’s spot-on election predictions or President Obama’s clearinghouse of government information, Data.gov — is that we no longer have to take so much on faith. “What do the data show?” is the new “What do you think?,” the new “Is this a good idea?”
But belief in the clarifying power of data is its own kind of faith, and it is one Obama has embraced, even before winning the presidency. And now, with the revelation that the National Security Agency is processing huge caches of telephone records and Internet data, the American public is being asked to take on faith how data — and how much data — is being gathered and used in Washington.
The “big data” presidency transcends intelligence-gathering and surveillance, encompassing the White House’s approach on matters from healthcare to reelection. A big-data fact sheet put out by the White House in March 2012 — upon the launch of its $200 million Big Data Research and Development Initiative — listed more than 85 examples of such efforts across a number of agencies. They include the CyberInfrastructure for Billions of Electronic Records (CI-BER), led in part by the National Archives and the National Science Foundation, and NASA’s Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), which the fact sheet described as a “collaborative, international effort to share and integrate Earth observation data.” And the Defense Department is putting about $250 million a year into the research and development of such projects — “a big bet on big data,” as the White House called it.
“In the same way that past federal investments in information-technology R&D led to dramatic advances in supercomputing and the creation of the Internet,” said a statement from John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “the initiative we are launching today promises to transform our ability to use Big Data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education, and national security.”
This constant emphasis on data-driven decision-making is, in some respects, a deliberate break from the George W. Bush years, the revenge of the “reality-based community” that a Bush aide famously disdained, describing its members as people who believe that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” The White House’s embrace of big data is meant to suggest that ideology is less important than inarguable facts. In some ways, this faith in data over ideology defines what it means to be part of Team Obama.
Faith in data’s power is, no doubt, part of Obama’s political genealogy. Both his 2008 campaign and last year’s reelection bid made extensive use of organized and analyzed information. (His team’s data-mining and microtargeting became one of the big stories of those campaigns.) Obama campaign folks dismiss the idea that they were using data to sell the president like soda pop by burrowing into our brains with targeted appeals. In campaign politics, they say, the power of data is in making the most of resources, whether ad dollars or volunteer enthusiasm.