Data With Backbone


You may recall a political dust-up this summer when the Clinton campaign accused the Sanders campaign of gaining illicit access to its voter data. How was this even possible? Well, it all traces back to a private company called NGP VAN.

NGP VAN, which works only with Democratic and progressive candidates for office, maintains a central national voter database that it regularly updates and enhances. Providing campaigns with convenient access to enhanced voter data is a good product in and of itself, but there’s a lot more going on in addition to that. Each campaign uploads its own donor files to NGP VAN, where they are matched to the central voter database. In a sense, NGP VAN offers a comprehensive backbone file of all voters, and each campaign attaches its transaction history to that backbone file. If a single voter gives to two campaigns, the voter will have two records attached. Critically, campaigns can only view their own records, or that’s the way it’s supposed to work. A botched software upgrade apparently gave the Sanders campaign the ability to view records from the Clinton campaign.

This software snafu notwithstanding, this “backbone” data model is an interesting one. Because NGP VAN only works with candidates blessed by the Democratic Party, all the activity by all the campaigns is viewable in the aggregate by the Democratic Party, providing real-time insight into campaign field activities nationwide.

In addition, by matching to a dependable backbone file, each campaign has unduplicated access both to known supporters in addition to everyone else in its area, all in a single, normalized dataset The matching process also helps campaigns identify and eliminate duplicate records. As NGP VAN identifies new third-party data elements that might be helpful to its campaign clients, it appends them to its backbone database, making them immediately accessible to all its clients. NGP VAN also supplies a sophisticated user interface to its clients, including door-to-door canvassing tools that operate on an iPad. Finally, NGP VAN makes it easy to export client data to any of a number of analytical tools and services used by the campaigns.

The basic idea of building a comprehensive industry database and software platform, and letting clients deeply integrate their data into it, so that all their customers and every possible prospect reside in one place in one format – that’s deep embedment. A number of data companies are backing into this model, albeit slowly, but SaaS really opens up the prospect of everyone in a vertical industry sharing the same data without giving up any confidential information. Could your market use some backbone?