On the election of Trump: What can data scientists do to help?

Data science failed terribly to predict or avert the election of Trump in 2016. If our job as operations researchers or optimizers or big data analysts is to help people make better decisions using data, we have failed bigly. Here is a partial catalogue of the major deficiencies we faced, and a few ideas for how you can help. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

For ways you can help as a citizen, rather than as a researcher, take a look at this post.

Electoral modeling and optimization

I’ve thought most about the polling and electoral optimization failures; I worked on the Obama campaign in 2012, which makes the obvious deficiencies of the Clinton campaign even more painful to me in retrospect. Here’s a lecture I gave after the election on the failures of electoral modeling. The failure was largely overconfidence; some analysts seem to have forgotten that not all errors are statistical errors.

There is also a possibility that data analysts failed in part by making models that were too good in 2008 and 2012. When campaigns only target people who are already on our side (eg, to increase turnout), they fail to pop the echo chambers developing on the other side.

How can you help?

  • Volunteer: Work for democratic or Democratic causes as a data analyst. Down-ballot politicians have a particularly hard time finding people with technical skills. You might also try contacting the Democratic National Committee.
  • Research: We need better methods for dealing with biased missing data. We also need better ways to think about longer term affects of following “optimal” policies. Politics is a reinforcement learning problem, not a supervised learning problem: our actions can change the state of the world, and these changes have repercussions for our ability to act in the future.

Disseminating information

We need to stop using methods designed for targeted advertising to disseminate news. We need new new news platforms (ie, not Facebook).

How can you help?

  • Start it up: Design this platform, fund it, virally market it, especially to those on the opposite side of the political divide.
  • Research: How do we get the incentives right to attract users and content to such a platform, and to earn enough money to maintain it? On what basis should news be chosen, if neither on editorial discretion nor on probability of click?

The business of government

Apparently Trump didn’t understand he was expected to staff the executive branch if he won. Unlike Romney, he does not have binders full of women at the ready. He’ll need to hire more than 4000 people one his first day at work.

Incompetence can easily wreak more damage than malevolence. If you’re competent, you should be able to help.

How can you help?

Education and outreach

I’ve been talking to strangers as often as I can after this election, particularly those from swing states. Many people who voted for Trump don’t know the basics: they think he’ll raising taxes on the rich; they think getting rid of Obamacare will reduce the cost of health care for them; they think they can tell if climate change is happening by thinking about how cold it was last winter; they think he’ll build a wall; they think he’ll bring back jobs.

How can you help?

  • Talk to strangers: Your friends already think like you. Instead, you need to talk to strangers on the street, at the grocery store, on planes; pick an area code far away from where you live and call random phone numbers. If you can listen with an open mind to understand what these people care about, you can also tell them how to find out which politicians are truly on their side.
  • Educate: I have the tremendous honor of speaking to a large class of students twice a week, and speaking to many smart people at conferences and seminars. Back in the day, one major purpose of college was to educate people to be good citizens, not just to get high-paying jobs. In my experience, students are eager for moral guidance and not just for technical guidance. Help them learn what they need to know to do good in the world.

What else?

I’m looking for more ways to keep the world from devolving into a hot mess of xenophobia. Please reach out with any ideas.