You might have seen headlines yesterday that confirmed what we all already—the 2016 election was so onerous and divisive that it . It certainly sounds true, but how could science even study such a thing? The short answer is by tracking your cellphone.
The findings, in Science today by a group led by UCLA economics professor Keith Chen, looked at Thanksgiving 2016 to find out whether there was real data behind backing up claims that America's broken political system was really ruining family gatherings.
Their conclusion: Yes, and the situation was worse in swing states where people were subjected to a nonstop flood of political advertising. As the study's synopsis says:
Democrats shortened their visits to Republican hosts by about 20 to 40 min, and Republicans shortened their visits to Democrats by about 50 to 70 min. Using political advertising data, Chen and Rohla found that cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinners were further shortened by around 2.6 min on average for every 1,000 political advertisements aired in the traveler’s home media market.
To make such a specific claim, Chen's group had to get very specific data about exactly where people lived and how they traveled on Thanksgiving Day 2016. Chen tells Seniorhelpline that the researchers used a company called SafeGraph for obtaining anonymized cellphone tracking data—that is, they could see exactly where certain devices went—and when—but with no identifying information whatsoever.
"They are one of a number of firms which buys location histories for various smartphone apps and aggregates them," Chen says.
The cellphone data also didn't give the person's exact address, since that'd give away who they were, but it did tell the researchers "where the phone resides overnight to within a few hundred feet." They used that location info to assign a given phone to a particular voting precinct. Then they looked at that precinct's vote tally, which was used to calculate a person's probable politics.
"If the precinct voted 60 percent Clinton, 40 percent Trump, then we assign that person a 60 percent probability of being a Clinton supporter," the researchers told Seniorhelpline. Boil all those stats and track how soon people went home after Thanksgiving dinner, and you get some compelling results.
Although it's neat to be able to back up an anecdotal feeling with cold data, tech giants are feeling the heat for mismanaging our data and tracking everything about us. Even if for just research purposes, scientists can buy and use these datasets, too.
Who knew that your smartphone location data could help definitely prove that politics ruined Thanksgiving.