‘Brexit’ outcome shows big data could cut through rhetoric to show even greater social value

The ‘monitor me’ and ‘big data’ movements have been on the top of the marketing agenda for some time now. Data, it would seem, will save our customers from impersonal products, services and content. It will reinvigorate marketing, making everything we do so much more ‘meaningful.’ So as I watched the ‘Brexit’ referendum unfold, I was amazed at how poorly any quantifiable information was surfaced in order to help the general British populace make this truly meaningful decision, with big data professionals missing the opportunity to step away from marketing rhetoric in order to cut through political rhetoric instead.


It baffles me that experience designers and data scientists alike spend significant time making complex choices easier for consumers, yet we don’t get more involved in these kinds of momentous events. Granted, sometimes the consumer choices we tackle are not terribly difficult, such as which wine they should buy based on the qualities of their previous purchases, but sometimes the choices we facilitate are a lot more complex. For example, insurance products have multiple features and qualities and come with involved compliance and legal implications, in addition to only being truly meaningful to consumers if you can help them to predict a likely future outcome to match a product. But even though insurance is notoriously difficult to simplify enough to improve consumer comprehension, designers will readily take on this challenge because we know there must always be a better way.


So why are we not applying the same abilities to helping people make even more significant decisions? The impact of either leaving or remaining in the EU is immense for every echelon of British society. If we were only to pick agriculture as an example, the availability of farm workers, the change to subsidies, the ability to trade etc will be felt by everyone working within that industry but also anyone who eats. Whether the impact is bad (according to the ‘remain’ camp) or good (according to the ‘leave’ camp) it will be deeply felt.


High on rhetoric, low on information


Real, quantifiable information appears to have been woefully lacking throughout the campaign. Within hours of the results being announced, the leave campaign’s claim that £350 million a week of EU contributions would consequently be available to spend on the NHS was quickly discounted by the leader of the U.K. Independence Party itself. It is quite astonishing that the number gained such prevalence during the campaign considering how easy it was to refute. In fact, so much of the impact of Britain leaving the EU is quantifiable, based on the multiple data points available to anyone who cares to read the countless reports published every year by the many regulatory bodies within the European Union. One of the benefits of bureaucracy is how much of a paper trail is available, even though bureaucracy was used as an argument to leave. Yet ‘experts’ who attempted to surface or refute numbers were disregarded as bipartisan showing that there is an opportunity to reveal data in a way that allows users to select the aspects that are important to them to gain truer insights, without spokespeople as the filter.


There are also many impacts that are difficult to predict, such as the impact to cultural sentiment, what it might do to the perceptions about foreigners and how British people view themselves within a global context, although even this is measurable post the event. Either way, we need a better way to make significant decisions on balance — ‘on balance’ being the key to everything here. What is the best decision for a country based on the balance of information available across multiple scenarios? The ability for most human beings to absorb this breadth of information is limited — making them reliant on summarised political rhetoric — yet this is what big and smart data was meant for.


An opportunity for digital natives to reform political campaigns


Although the overall populace of England was evenly split on the issue — 48.1% to remain and 51.9% to leave — the younger demographic were not as divided. Around three quarters supported the remain campaign. Ironically, they are the generation who will bear the brunt of the consequences and their opinion will not win out. What is more confronting is that non-voters skewed more to the younger demographic, with a general trend for turnout increasing in line with average age. The outcome could have been so much more reflective of this key demographic should they be more engaged in the decision making process. Perhaps we need to take into consideration that even though education levels of younger generations are often shown to be higher than their predecessors, the attention spans of digital natives are getting shorter, highlighting the need for accurate ‘on balance’ data as one way to engage a younger populous in political decision-making.


If data scientists and experience designers commit to cutting through political rhetoric by surfacing significant insights, not only will it be easier for everyone to make informed decisions, it might also be harder for politicians to win on false information, changing political campaigns for the better.