UWM students connect to presidential campaign through Data Science Institute research

UWM students are using data science to help shed light on what might be driving voters in the 2020 presidential election campaign.

The Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute’s Elecurator project took advantage of the Democratic National Convention last month in Milwaukee as an opportunity to evaluate the political landscape through a big data lens.

Elecurator, a funded research project which began in January 2020, uses a variety of data sources, including online and social media, traditional polling methods and political advertisements, to determine what issues are on the minds of voters.

Among topics covered by the team at the DNC were climate change, racial equality and social media reactions to speeches given by women at the convention, including Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

The project is led by co-principal investigators Purush Papatla, co-director of the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute and professor of marketing at UWM, and Amber Wichowsky, associate professor of political science at Marquette.

Cultivating skills

The project team includes a mix of undergraduate and graduate students in various degree programs, with varying experience and knowledge of data science and politics.

“This project is perfectly aligned with the mission and vision of the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute,” Papatla said. “We’re providing opportunities for students to cultivate the skills they will need for a future in data science while introducing them to societal and political issues that have an impact locally and nationally.”

In the weeks leading up to the DNC, students collected and analyzed social media data about the elections to look at the issues garnering the most attention online. They coded candidate speeches, debate transcripts and political advertising to look at the issues the candidates are prioritizing in their campaign messages.

During the DNC, the students used a method called topic modeling to understand what topics are highlighted during speeches and how the general electorate is responding digitally.

Landing jobs

Three former team members have already obtained full-time data science positions in companies around Milwaukee and the remaining students are pursuing additional research opportunities at their universities. Ben Garski, a recent UWM graduate and former team member, just started a job at Northwestern Mutual.

“Being able to say I did natural language processing, a newer machine-learning process, as part of this project really makes you pretty employable,” Garski said.

Jake Beihoff, another recent UWM graduate, decided to stay with the team even after he getting a full-time job with MolsonCoors.

“I like that because it really lets the data speak to you; it’s an endless cycle of problem solving. I’ve found that this experience translates easily into my work because understanding how consumers engage with your brand is so important,” Beihoff added. “Analyzing digital conversations is one way of doing that.”

The Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute is an industry and academic partnership between Northwestern Mutual, UWM and Marquette formed to inspire and cultivate passion for data science in the Milwaukee region. The groundbreaking partnership will contribute $40 million over five years to help build a technology ecosystem and advance southeastern Wisconsin as a national hub for technology, research, business and talent development, while creating an organic pipeline of tech talent in the area.

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