The old method of spending millions of dollars running flashy campaign ads and cold-calling voters was upended in 2012 when a team of big-data scientists found a new way of doing business.

Led by Dan Wagner, founder and CEO of Civis Analytics, the team applied new tools to mine social media and data sets from municipal elections to identify specific voters, forgoing outdated methods that focused heavily on large demographic blocks.

As Wagner said Monday at the University of Montana’s School of Business Administration, the rest is history. The application of big data helped re-elect President Barack Obama to his second term in office.

“What it really meant is that math would decide the outcome, which became the strategy,” Wagner said. “If you have a disagreement that you can’t support with fact, either through observable data or through a testable theory we can take into the field – if you’re not on board with that, then get out. The campaign doesn’t need you.”

Wagner’s arrival at UM marked another chapter in the burgeoning relationship between the university and Missoula-area businesses rooted in big-data analytics – companies like GCS, TerraEchos, TeraDek and LMG Security.

Through a new lecture series focused on big data, Alex Philp, founder and president of GCS, looks to elevate the discussion on Missoula’s economic future, its potential as a cyber hub, and the university’s role in moving the ball forward.

“We need to elevate the discussion to let the city, Montana and the world know what we mean when we say big data,” Philp said. “My goal is to never give another lecture on volume, velocity, veracity and all those needs. I’d like to facilitate very compelling world-class stories.”

Wagner touched on the role universities play in the use of big data, saying new technology will amplify studies across a wide range of academic disciplines, from genetics to environmental science.

It will also open the doors of possibility for upcoming students who want to make a difference. The new generation may be the first that won’t be better off than its parents, and today’s students are looking for opportunities, he said.

“They don’t want to make the millionth iteration of the Google search function – that’s boring – and they don’t want to help Facebook optimize clicks so I’ll investigate the 50th dating site they give to me,” Wagner said.

“What’s exciting is this idea that you can make a difference now, it’s just how you execute it. The process of big data is interesting, but it’s the potential part that’s compelling to these kids who are walking into uncertainty. You can become a model of that through your own work.”

With funding provided by local startups, UM recently opened its new Cyber Lab and big-data center, and it launched a new cyber-security program at Missoula College.

Aided by TerraEchos, it also continues its partnership with IBM, and it was the first university in the country to teach the InfoSphere Streams computing platform.

UM and local companies are working to “repackage, rebrand and expand their efforts” to promote their efforts by tying the new big-data lecture series to human endeavors, such as the 2012 presidential race.

Philp contacted Wagner based on the recommendation of Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and a University of Montana alumnus.

“At the end of the day, (Wagner) is doing some amazing work looking at information and how it relates to people, and I’m intrigued by that,” Philp said. “It’s a perfect storm of convergence. This story is now larger than how effective we were in a political process.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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