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Taking the pulse of the planet

How a cutting-edge project used Twitter to gauge the changing emotions of last year’s Olympic Games

Nearly 690,000 visited the UK for the 2012 London Olympics, to be part of the 7.4 million people who visited stadia during the event . It delivered the BBC's highest viewing figures ever, and online it also inspired the highest number of 'Tweets' for a single event since the social media site Twitter was launched, with 150 million messages sent during the Olympic fortnight.

By their nature, Tweets tend to be ephemeral things: short burst of information which contain a link to something informative or funny, or a quick expression of emotion. But analysed en masse they can reveal intriguing patterns which can be of academic, commercial and artist use. That, at least, is what a team of researchers, technologists, artists and data specialists set out to show through emoto, a project part funded by the AHRC through The Creative Exchange, one of its four Knowledge Exchange Hubs.

emoto captured 12.5 million English language updates to Twitter which referenced the Games during Olympic fortnight, and analysed them for 'sentiment' by parsing for positive or negative language. Using this information, they created a real-time representation of the mood the online crowd — commonly called a 'data visualisation' — in order to identify patterns in both the sentiments expressed and networks through which they spread and amplified. They also provided tools to search through and explore a timelines of topics and see how events and people related to one another.

The result was fascinating, fun, compellingly interactive and arguably beautiful too.

The emoto project was led by Manchester-based FutureEverything, an organisation that describes itself as an “Research & Development hub for digital culture”. It worked through the Creative Exchange Knowledge Exchange Hub (KE), based at Lancaster University, whose focus is to bring pioneering companies together with academics to explore the potential of something they are calling the ‘digital public space’. Founder and CEO of FutureEverything Drew Hemment has been exploring the interaction between data and public space for 20 years, and has been instrumental in the movement to open up UK government data for public use.

“We did a live data visualisation of the first televised Prime Ministerial debates in 2010,” explains Hemment, “And were running a data literacy education program at the same time. We knew the Olympics were on the horizon, and felt that it would be an incredible opportunity to develop an experiment in data visualisation on a really big scale.”

One of the challenges for the emoto was verifying the sentiment of a Tweet. Hemment says that the team worked closely with a company called Lexalitics on semantic analysis software that would be able to define the emotion being expressed in a Tweet automatically.

“It was surprisingly accurate,” he says, after analysing the results, “We expected their to be some anomalies and false classifications, but it was actually very robust. A lot of the anomalies were at the level of individual messages, so when there's an aggregation with millions of Tweets involved those even out pretty quickly.”

While the subject matter of emoto may seem slightly frivolous, the underlying motives are serious indeed. 'Big data' has become a popular buzz-phrase describing the vast amount of information which is processed daily in the networks that dominate our lives. From social media to financial interactions, understanding the way big data works and the nature of its relationship to real human being has become one of the big questions of our time for.

And Twitter is very much big data. According to internal strategy documents leaked to TechCrunch in 2009, one of the driving visions behind microblogging social site Twitter is that it will become “the pulse of the planet” . Now, in 2013, both the British Prime Minister and the US President use the service to break real news in short, 140 character updates, and around half a billion people worldwide use it to comment on everything from current affairs to announcing newborn children. It's wouldn't be too much of a leap to say that that the goal has been achieved.

This pulse is constantly being taken: by businesses with an interest in marketing products, politicians looking to gauge the public mood and — as recent revelations have made clear — by intelligence agencies looking for and recording patterns in the way people interact online. But the tools the general public have to comprehend big data are still evolving, and a key goal for emoto was to explore new ways of showing data online and in the real world and making them accessible for all.

During the Olympics, the emoto tools fed into the festive feeling around the games, reflecting back to spectators the role that they played as they cheered or commiserated with the crowd, and provided media with Twitter-generated news stories too.

“It was definitely interesting to see the difference between mass media reporting and what we found in the data,” explains Moritz Stefaner, a freelance ‘information visualiser’ and one of the key collaborators on emoto, “Some events happened only on Twitter, such as the harassment of Tom Daley. It was also interesting to see the momentum Tweets can develop from celebrity involvement.”

Stefaner says that working on emoto led to a richer experience of the games on the whole, but he is aware of some of the projects limitations. Restricting it to English language Tweets, for example, automatically means that only a certain subset of opinions are going to be included in the visualisations.

“emoto revealed the kind of tension and contradiction we see in the emerging digital public space,” Hemment agrees, “On the one hand, the 'global village' is very much a reality because we can visualise millions of interactions in an instant. On the other, that isn't an unbiased view because we see the world through platforms and there's unequal access to those platforms.”

As well as immediate understanding of the public mood, the project was designed to provide something more tangible after the event too.

“After the games we milled 17 'theme' plates,” says Hemment, describing a physical exhibition of emoto's findings, “And the topography, the landscape of those plates represented the height of different emotional responses over time. Then we projected some of the key stories we discovered onto them.”

One of Hemment's collaborators on emoto, Stephan Thiel from Berlin's Studio NAND, says that one goal of the physical exhibition was to examine the question of what happens to a culture in which most activity takes place digitally.

“The core question,” explains Thiel, “Is what remains of our digital activity today? Will people in 100 years' time be able to decipher the traces we leave behind? This question relates to the theme of 'legacy' which played a huge part during London 2012.”

Despite its highly abstract nature, says Thiel, visitors who saw the physical exhibition were highly engaged by it.

“It didn't take much to get even non-technical people introduced to the exhibition,” he says, “As soon as visitors understood what they were seeing, they found it really inspiring and began to think of other uses for the same thing immediately.”

One of the challenges of putting together a project like emoto is to find and work with collaborators across different disciplines and, often, time zones. In order to facilitate such works, AHRC has established four KE Hubs which act as an online brokerage for both ideas and talent. As well as an academic and researcher, Hemment is also Deputy Director and Co-Investigator of one of these hubs, The Creative Exchange (CX). emoto proved to be a useful pilot project for his work with CX, helping to develop techniques for others to build on with future works.

Perhaps the most important lesson which emoto can teach, however, is one which isn't immediately obvious. Although social media like Twitter can seem to be replacing or augmenting other types of public forum, the emoto team ran into one of the most pressing problems of what happens when private companies control pubic space. Just weeks before the games began, Twitter changed its terms of operation and restricted access to the software interfaces emoto had been developed to use.

“Twitter switched to a more closed model, and pulled Tweets from third-parties so they could monitor and monetise them,” says Hemment, “We had to build an entirely new infrastructure from scratch in two weeks, and that really highlighted the fact that the contemporary online landscape is very far from a public space. People invest huge amounts of their lives into these spaces, but they're privately owned and privately controlled.

“We hope that emoto can be a reference point for a more open web,” he continues, “By making visible some of the limits about what we could do and publishing the results, we hope we can generate debates around all these issues and contribute.”

Visit the emoto website for further information on emoto.

Visit the Creative Exchange website for further information on the Creative Exchange.

Find out more about the Knowledge Exchange Hubs on our website.

Article by Adam Oxford

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