Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Maisanta: Micro-targetting Venezuelan style 

This is an overdue post on some long standing opposition propaganda regarding one of Chavez’s campaign tools. However, given that we are now days away from one of the biggest elections in Venezuela’s history it is more than appropriate to post on now.

Last year some opposition supporters claimed to find what they called “irrefutable proof” of political persecution in Venezuela. This was splashed all over the blogosphere and even made it into video form and a book! Sounds serious. And indeed it would be serious if there was some proof of political persecution in Venezuela. So what was the proof? Here it is:

This is a screen shot of a computer of a computer database program that goes by various names but is generally called “Maisanta”. And does this database serve to identify “enemies of the revolution”? In a way sort of, but not really.

What this database really has as its purpose is nothing more outrageous and threatening than identifying potential pro-Chavez voters for get out the vote efforts. To see how it does this lets look at what information it actually supplies. First it has basic things like name, address, and birth date. It also includes information on what the persons polling location is. All of that is fairly innocuous.

But then we get to the heart of the database. On the bottom left it tells if the person is still alive (?!?), if they have a history of not voting, and, more importantly, if they have participated in some of Chavez’s social programs called “Missions”.

Clearly a program that identifies who participates in the “Missions” isn’t a program intended to discriminate against people – why would the government want to discriminate against people who participated in the Missions, or for that matter people who don’t participate in the Missions? Rather what this leads to is the real purpose of this program – identifying potential Chavez voters for get out the vote efforts.

Chavez, like any politician, needs organized campaign efforts if he is to have an chance of winning elections. And one of those efforts that is used to maximize his chances of winning elections are databases that pull together various types of information to identify people who might be inclined to vote for him. After all, if you are going door to door to get people to vote you only want to knock on people’s doors who you have reason to believe might vote for you. Hence the Maisanta database.

Is there something inherently pernicious or anti-democratic about this? Not at all. In fact, it is something that has been turned into a virtual science in that great laboratory of democracy called the United States. They have even coined a term for it – “micro-targetting” – as the following Wall Street Journal article points out:

Democrats, Playing Catch-Up, Tap Database to Woo Potential Voters

Yochi Dreazen

WASHINGTON—In the final week before the election, Democrats pushing to convert their lead in the polls into control of Congress are pinning their hopes of success on an increasingly common tactic for pumping up voter turnout: microtargeting.
The technique aims to identify potential supporters by collecting and analyzing the unprecedented amount of information now readily available—from census data to credit-card bills—to profile individual voters. Political strategists then tailor messages to entice those prospects to the polls, using the same methods marketers use to sell autos or aspirin to consumers.

Democrats are playing catch-up to Republicans, whose use of microtargeting in 2004 energized millions of new voters who backed President Bush. Republicans have since expanded their database in size and sophistication, even as formerly skeptical Democrats have spent millions of dollars building microtargeting systems of their own.

Copernicus's chief scientist, Ben Yuhas, likens microtargeting to searching for a needle in a haystack—over and over again. The spreadsheet on a single voter from one of the states where Copernicus is operating contains more than 500 rows of information, ranging from whether a prospect lives in an apartment or house to commercially purchased data on the type of car the voter drives. Mr. Yuhas has developed mathematic formulas based on such factors as length of residence, amount of money spent on golf, voting patterns in recent elections and a handful of other variables to calculate the likelihood that a particular American will vote Democratic.

Republicans have long outstripped Democrats in their support for, and use of, the technique—an edge the Republicans hope to maintain this election. Today, Republicans use a centralized computer system called Voter Vault that is available to Republican candidates across the country. TargetPoint executives hold monthly conference calls with top Republican operatives such as White House political director Sara Taylor. The Republican National Committee now has data covering tens of millions of voters from across the country, to which TargetPoint has access. In 2004, the firm had such a comprehensive database only for Ohio.

Reading this article what comes to mind is – “poor Chavistas, in the U.S. these programs have 500 data fields on people and they only have a dozen at most!”. Indeed, the quantity of information collected for electoral purposes in the U.S. is stunning. But given the importance people attach to winning elections it should come as no surprise that people seek to give themselves any advantage they can. And certainly in Venezuela, where if anything the stakes are even higher, there is even more of a premium to these types of efforts.

So rather than looking at a tool designed for political persecution as silly and unknowing opposition propagandists claim we are looking at the exact same type of electoral program as is used in the United States – if a good deal less sophisticated.
Want more evidence of what the true purpose of this software just look at the “read me” file that comes with it:

Batalla de Santa Inés Versión 1.10
Es un sistema de computación que integra en una sola base de datos toda la información mínima y necesaria para la gestión electoral. Su desarrollo es dinámico diariamente se incorporan nuevas funcionalidades e información obtenidas de diversas bases de datos que contribuyen a conocer ampliamente el panorama electoral en forma regional, partiendo desde Estado, municipio parroquia y centro de votación.
Su función es facilitar consultas en forma personal o en grupo de ciudadanos de un centro de votación o cualquier comunidad. Sirve de apoyo a la misión y visión de la sbatalla de Santa Inés.
La necesidad de crear ésta solución nace por diferentes razones.
1. Democratizar el acceso a la información.
2. Lograr que los sectores populares tenga acceso a la información.
3. Participar como contralor en los procesos electorales.
4. Evitar el fraude electoral.
5. Motivar la participación electoral.
6. Cuantificar la cantidad de electores de uno o varios centros de votación.
7. Ofrecer información y orientación al elector.
8. Ubicar votantes con tan solo indicar Nombres y Apellidos.
9. Acceder a la información sin necesidad de utilizar Internet, debido a la carencia de servicio en gran parte del territorio nacional y en los sectores populares.
10. Apoyo técnico que se integra a la labor de las Patrullas (UBE)
11. Comodidad para realizar las labores de consulta en Casa.
12. Ofrecer servicios de consulta a los vecinos de tu comunidad.
13. Evitar el traslado de los patrulleros de la UBE hacia centros de navegación ahorrándoles costos y tiempo.
14. Bajo requerimientos técnicos, puede operar desde computadoras de bajo rendimiento hasta los computadores más sofisticados.

What does this say? Among other things – 4) avoid electoral fraud 5) motivate electoral participation 7) offer information and orient electors 10) provide techinical support to the get out the vote patrols 13) avoiding the need for campaign workers to go to Internet centers saving money and time – among other things. In short, this software exists to help pro-Chavez campaign workers identify people who are likely to support Chavez, such as those who have participated in the Missions, and get them to vote. That is what demrocracy is all about, getting people to vote for your side. So rather than evidence of repression the existence of this software is evidence of a living, breathing, thriving democracy in Venezuela and Chavez’s attempts to win through the democratic process.

Of course a final point is in order. One data field contained in this software is particularly controversial – and that is the field which identifies who signed the recall petition against Chavez in 2004. To have this information in this database, it is asserted, is somehow a violation of peoples rights and evidence of discrimination. Again, this is simply not the case. Who signed the petitions against Chavez is a matter of public record. Chavez, as the subject of the petition, was allowed to challenge it by reviewing the petitions so he, and who ever he delegated this responsibility to, had the right to review who had signed. Indeed by doing this many thousands of fraudulent signatures were discovered. So these signatures are by no means secret.

Why are they in this database? The real question is why not. Can you think of any single indicator of a persons likely voting preferences regarding Chavez than if they wanted him recalled in 2004? And if you were a Chavez campaign worker would you want to give a ride to the polls to a person who had signed against Chavez? That probably wouldn’t be a smart move, would it? So in fact the inclusion of that data is entirely appropriate and undoubtedly of great assistance to the Chavez campaign.

This of course leads to the question of has this been used to single out people for political discrimination in Venezuela. First, lets say that it clearly could be used for that purpose. Anything that can be used to identify peoples political tendencies can be used to discriminate. So the “micro-targetting” databases in the U.S. could also be used for that purpose. Has Maisanta been used in that way? In a country of 26 million people there is little doubt that it probably has been used inappropriately by overzealous government officials and supporters. And that is deplorable. But to make the leap from isolated misuses of a software which has entirely appropriate political uses to saying it is an intended tool of repression is simply not in line with the facts. Like many things with legitimate uses it can be inappropriately used by those so inclined - but that is not its purpose.

The Maisanta software is NOT “irrefutable proof” of political persecution in Venezuela. Rather, it is irrefutable proof of democracy and electoral politics in Venezuela. It shows Chavez tries to win open and contested elections. And that is what it is all about.


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