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February 22 2011


Attitudes in the tubes: An Irish site mines Twitter for political trends

Editor’s Note: On Friday, voters in Ireland will go to the polls to elect members of its lower house of Parliament and, by proxy, the Taoiseach, or prime minister.

Since just about any news organization might have reason to cover an election at some point — and since we here in the U.S. are edging closer to our own two-year marathon — we thought it might be useful to look at how one upstart Irish online news outlet, TheJournal.ie, is using social media data to examine the sentiment of the voting public. Irish newspaper and web designer Fergus Kelly reports.

My favorite webpage of the entire election campaign is The Journal’s #ge11 Twitter Tracker, launched earlier this month. It’s brilliant. In essence it presents an analysis of the tweet stream in Ireland, showing which parties and party leaders are being talked about most and the attitude of the public to the party leaders in a very graphic and simple to understand way (much, much simpler than that last sentence). I look at it several times a day, watching for changes in volume of tweets and how people are feeling about the parties.

The Journal’s aim is to innovate in the Irish media sector and to encourage users to be part of the process, a socialization of news that is gathering momentum worldwide. It is now my first port of call for finding news. The Twitter Tracker follows on from interesting ideas like the 9 at 9 (nine things you need to know at 9 a.m.), Take 5 (five things you need to know by 5 p.m.), the Daily Fix (its pick of the highs and lows of the day’s election campaign), and daily polling — delivering bite-sized, curated, interactive, and realtime news.

To help create the tracker, The Journal turned to Clarity, a partnership between University College Dublin, Dublin City University and Tyndall National Institute (TNI) Cork. Adam Bermingham, a Ph.D. researcher with Clarity, told me that it is “aiming to turn raw data from the (usually social) web into meaningful and valuable information which is easily consumed and understood.”

“For the Twitter Tracker project, we have applied the technologies we have developed over the last few years to the political domain to provide analysis, which has been visualised and editorialised by TheJournal.ie,” he said.

That editorialisation and visualisation is pretty good. The best feature of the Twitter Tracker (very graphically) presents the most talked about party leader on Twitter, with the option of analysis of the Last Few Hours, Last Day, or the Whole Campaign. It uses the size-of-head metaphor to graph the data — the biggest head is the most talked about — and it can be most amusing. Sentiment is visualised using something like the Swingometer popularized by the BBC for election coverage.

It also has a graph of the volume and sentiment of tweets about the parties over the past week, showing the most talked-about party. This graph is (only occasionally, unfortunately) annotated with stories from The Journal to explain spikes in the graph, and the dates it covers can be adjusted.

The top trending candidates in the past day or week are also displayed, with a short profile of each to explain who they are.

The top 10 words associated with each leader and party over the past week is also enlightening. For example, at the time of writing, the word most associated with Labour’s Eamon Gilmore was “Taoiseach,” while this was only eighth for Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny. I wonder why?

“The top terms are important terms which have been uniquely mentioned in relation to the leaders or parties in question. In this way we get an idea of what concepts have a strong association that is intrinsically linked to that leader or party,” Bermingham said.

Finally, the tracker looks at the top retweets. This feature is based only on the new Twitter retweet format and therefore may not give a perfect result. Adam told me he had “developed a solution for the old school retweet [RT] but there is inevitably a problem in being able to say for sure where an old school retweet first originated. This remains an exercise for future work!”

The tech

Clarity attempts to provide analysis “beyond simple data such as word clouds and search results.” This idea becomes clear in the sentiment analysis feature of the Twitter Tracker. Clarity has developed methods to create high-quality training data from human input which is then “mined for patterns and used by state-of-the-art machine learning algorithms to identify sentiment in new data.” In other words, once their system has been trained, it can analyze anything — in this case a real-time stream of tweets — and identify attitudes. Its technology is able to do this in less than a minute.

The tracker has been looking at #ge11 on Twitter. I wondered how the central control of social networking accounts, notably by Fine Gael, may skew the analysis.

Adam said: “We don’t skew our analysis towards or away from particular sources/users. While this is possible, and even advisable for certain applications, we felt that for this election, the first general election in Ireland to be influenced by Twitter, it is valuable to present a zeitgeist of the electorate as well as the candidates, parties and party members. What we aim to do is to help people, who may not be familiar with Twitter, understand the fabric of Twitter, as it is being used, by everyone who has something to say about the election.”

The Journal is one of the most innovative news websites in Ireland. Its use of Huffington Post-style aggregation, coupled with internally generated news (with a target of a 50/50 split), broke new ground in Ireland. It’s part of the same group, Distilled Media, that created daft.ie, boards.ie, and adverts.ie and has an advertising-driven business model but currently only carries ads for other companies in the group. With more high-tech partnerships with emerging tech companies, sites like this can only add choice and therefore increase innovation in a behind-the-curve market like Ireland.

A version of this post originally appeared at Fergus’ website.

March 19 2010


Geo-Location, Sentiment Analysis, AT&T Blankets SXSWi

As SXSW Interactive comes to a close and SXSW Music kicks off, it's worth taking a look at the ideas, trends, discussions, and issues that dominated the four-day technology summit. Here are the five areas that stood out the most to me.

1. Conference Buzz

Every year there is a product or two that monopolizes most of the buzz -- for example, you couldn't go ten feet in 2008 without hearing a discussion about Twitter. For 2010, the buzzed-about phrase was without a doubt location-based services. Although the start of this discussion was in 2009, these mash-ups of geography and social technology really hit their stride this year.


Foursquare and Gowalla are the clear leaders in this space, as evidenced by the major presence enjoyed by both at the conference. Foursquare had a record 347,000 check-ins in one day this week, and the use of the service will certainly continue as the music crowd floods Austin.

The discussion I had with most people centered around the question, "What next?" As in: Now that these services are gaining momentum and adoption, where is the business model? Other than high-level brand partnerships and individual locations offering incentives for customers to check-in, few other monetization and call-to-action results have been seen. I see plenty of value in getting 10 percent off my order if I am the Foursquare mayor of a restaurant, or in allocating a big ad spend for a custom promotion, but where is the middle ground for everyone else?

But apart from that, you know you're hitting some level of critical mass when CNN chimes in on how to use Foursquare to be cool (or at least not uncool).

2. Data Tracking and Analysis Tools

In my 2009 wrap-up piece, I stated that 2010 would be the year of analytics. The data has been available for ages, but the tools to turn raw data into information -- and better yet, knowledge -- have finally found a strong value proposition. More and more products are emerging to monitor and analyze Twitter activity, social media trends, community management results, and overall impact and impressions.

Google Analytics is still a strong contender in the space, with almost everyone mentioning this as a core piece of the puzzle. Platform-specific tools such as Twitter Counter and bigger-picture services such as Radian6 were discussed at great length and examples were provided of their functionality.

The current Holy Grail of analytics (and I bet a buzz-topic at SXSW in 2011) is sentiment analysis -- not only knowing who is saying what how often, but getting a feel for the tone and meaning of what they are saying. Be on the lookout for more discussion and tools as time goes on. (MediaShift's Nick Mendoza looked at sentiment analysis related to the Oscars recently.)

3. Disappointing Panels & Keynotes

There is no lack of articles on the multiple disappointments around this year's panels and keynotes (start here and here). Spotify's Daniel Ek and Twitter's Evan Williams both brought in packed houses, but by the end of their talks the attendance was sparse and the content was thin.

As someone who speaks at and attends many tech and music conferences, I've seen my fair share of highly informative panels, and have had plenty of my time wasted. I wish I could report that SXSWi had a non-stop stream of amazing takeaways, but unfortunately it didn't go that way.

It's not for lack of relevant, forward-thinking topics. And it's certainly not for lack of amazing speakers who are getting big things done. In my experience, it comes down to two things: Having to cater to a very wide audience with varying skill levels, and only having a short time to address a long list of topics. The solution? Keep the panels focused on the core topic -- I'm talking to you, moderators -- and keep in mind that the audience can read theory on any blog; what they need are actionable takeaways.

The reason I left most panels disappointed was that I felt it was a missed opportunity. With such brilliant and accomplished panelists, I should have walked out of the room with a few action items I could implement immediately. This was very rare.

4. Skyrocketing Attendance

hero.jpgThe attendance at this year's conference says something positive about the state of the tech industry. Last year's attendance was approximately 10,000; this year, there were over 15,000 badge holders. The feeling is very reminiscent of the mid-'90s in Seattle, when a new wave of technology and investment quickly expanded the marketplace.

What seems great for the industry -- a glut of big thinkers and tech geniuses -- is not as ideal for the conference itself. Getting into panels meant waiting in long lines and, often, only getting in when someone else left. The same thing happened at most industry parties, where the RSVPs far exceeded room capacity. It was a constant feeling up "hurry up and wait."

Fortunately, AT&T thought ahead and brought in an extra cell tower, providing massive bandwidth for what seemed to be the biggest concentration of iPhones on the planet. I can honestly say it was the best 3G coverage I've ever had.

5. Parallel Conferences

Something I noticed this year that I hadn't seen near as much in prior years was a number of parallel conferences, both perceived and actual. Depending on your interests and network, the conference experience tends to vary widely. In a single night you can find yourself in the middle of a raging party with young (and wealthy) tech entrepreneurs, a serious business dinner with corporate executives, and in a development workshop with programmers (that's their own unique type of party).


In addition, there were a number of side conferences, including fully off-site panels that almost felt like secret societies. Celebrity bloggers hosted workshops, independent organizations hosted roundtable discussions, and trade organizations fostered discussions focused on their interests. There was certainly something for everyone.

SXSW Music has now begun, and the tone of the conference has dramatically changed. Stay tuned for a report back on that experience...

Photo of Foursquare app by dpstyles via Flickr. Photo of attendee with Mr. Spam by Randy Stewart via Flickr. Photo of SXSW closing party logo by Fellowship of the Rich via Flickr

Jason Feinberg is Vice President, Direct To Consumer Marketing for Concord Music Group. He is responsible for digital and physical direct-to-fan solutions for CMG's frontline and massive catalog including the Fantasy and Stax labels.

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