Monday, January 31, 2011

Head in the Cloud? How can we harness the wisdom of the crowd?

Is there any value to the idea of 'the cloud'? Problem-solving by posting a question 'out there' and seeing if a response comes? It could be the scariest experience to anyone who feels they need to gain advise from 'real' experts, or doubt there is any sense in what is sometimes known as the wisdom of the crowd. But don't we often do this anyway? If you rely on ratings on review sites when buying books, CDs, DVDs, choosing hotels, restaurants, bars (even wedding venues), then you are relying on collective intelligence. Reviews of cars, computers, B2B services, are said to be frequently used when seeking advise; how do we know any review is any more credible than another; furthermore can we really trust the 'expert' (paid reviewer) any more than the unpaid reviewer or is the latter inherently either more trustworthy or less of an expert? More interesting, how can the idea cloud be used. Are there bright ideas out there being untapped? Can they help organisations do things better? Or are we just inviting chaos into every aspect of life? Governments talk of organising groups that they can consult on issues, somewhere in the Big Society is an idea of collective action and wisdom - are there better ideas out there or would this just invite partisan commentary and negativity? Are focus groups ways of harnessing random ideas or only for testing existing ideas - having run them you often find that you cannot just ask what they think of 'X' but they insist on saying 'Y' would work better. Should more be done or less? Really interested in any thoughts on this!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

If nothing else, social media can tell you if you got the message out

Due to the immediacy of public input an commentary, it is now simpler to assess the extent to which any set piece event is able to capture attention and also whether you got the message across. The US President State of the Union (hashtag #SOTU) is one such event and key to this is firstly capturing attention and secondly getting the message across.

Mashable produced some great analysis of what the social web was talking about when discussing the the SOTU. It certainly captured an active audience, 400,000 tweets is a significant number, and of those the majority talked about issues relating to education and the economy, they also note clear spikes in issue attention suggesting Obama is leading the online commentary. This, however, is an engaged audience who not only listen to SOTU but wish to add commentary and debate the issues. Sadly there is no sentiment rating to assess the extent of whether they were largely supportive or not.

A more representative sample was used to test out whether Obama's messages got through to the audience. An article in New York magazine shows two word clouds, one for Obama's speech and one from recall among 4,000 of the audience. Obama's cloud is dense and full of the sort of language one would expect. There are a lot of issues raised but also those buzzwords 'new', 'people' and references to nation and national identity with America/American/Americans. The 4,000 viewers picked out a less dense package of words. Aside from education, the key terms were descriptive as opposed to the terms Obama may have liked to have had resonate. Words such as 'Inspiring', 'hopeful', 'optimistic' describe a mood as opposed to issues - this tells us something about what audiences pick out however. But then there is the major key word they heard 'Salmon' - not a major policy area!
What do we learn from this, well we can get instance responses from an audience. Usually this would be the most engaged group however. This may look pretty positive but this may lead to a false sense of security about how you led an agenda and how politically aware the majority of people are. Asking a mass audience shows that what you think people heard may not always be what they actually left with in their minds.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: Britain Votes 2010

It is now traditional for Parliamentary Affairs to produce simultaneously a special edition of the journal and a book covering various aspects of each UK election. Britain Votes 2010, edited by Andrew Geddes and Jonathan Tonge covers all the main issues relating to the election one would expect and want to find in such a resource. The results and subsequent negotiations prior to the formation of a coalition are covered in excellent depth, with specific chapters on the campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland providing rich detail on campaigning and voting patterns and their impact on the election result. There are also chapters covering the campaigns of the main parties, and one on finance which shows the disparity experienced between the 'rich' Conservatives and their opponents. Despite inequalities in campaigning ability and funding, the result was not a disaster for Labour which suggests that there is more to voting behaviour than a flash campaign. The one clear 'effect' is the swing against Labour among Sun readers shown in the chapter on The Media by Dominic Wring and Stephen Ward. While Cleggmania may have been instigated by the first Leaders' Debate and Duffygate by then PM Gordon Brown being caught off-guard by television, but neither these nor innovations online translated into votes; maybe there is still a detectable Sun effect after all. Chapters on gender imbalances, in both media portrayals and despite selection procedures, economic and foreign policy and attitudes towards European integration and immigration round off the book. Perhaps more could be said of the minor parties, though they seemed to have little overall impact beyond the election of Caroline Lucas as Britain's first Green Party MP. Overall, therefore, this book represents an excellent resource that reminds us of the detail as well as providing in-depth analysis of a range of issues and some interesting thoughts for the future of British democracy.

The one issue I would raise about reporting on the election is the often repeated line that 'On 6th May 2010 the British electorate spoke, but it was not entirely clear what they said', a line originating with commentators on May 7th when interpreting what a hung parliament meant. It seems that actually it is clear that the voters as individuals were able to make their own decision on how to vote but collectively there was no winner. Basically it seems the clear outcome was not that any voter tried to engineer a hung parliament but that there was a failure by any party to win over a majority. Despite his flaws, Gordon Brown remained a better PM (perhaps safer pair of hands) than Cameron. Cameron failed to make a case for his social re-organisation and replacing Big Government with Big Society (as Martin J. Smith points out in the book). Voters may have warmed to Nick Clegg but still not seen the Liberal Democrats as a viable government. Hence, despite all the usual campaigning activity, and the added dimension of leader's debates which received record viewer figures for any British political programme, there seemed to be little impact on public opinion from the campaign. Of course we cannot say this with any degree of safety, as it is unclear how many individuals changed their minds due to any specific event during the course of the campaign, but it is striking how pre-campaign polling results seemed to be reflected in the results, notwithstanding minor underestimations of the Labour vote holding up.

These issues are all raised in the book, an analysed in depth where possible. While it is perhaps one of many texts that will emerge on the election its coverage and quality will place it as a key resource for understanding how the British voted in 2010, the potential impacts and how this election should be understood within the context of patterns of campaigning, party performance and voting behaviour for years to come.