Underestangin voters’ information seeking behaiviour

Jonathan and I recently published a paper titledWikipedia traffic data and electoral prediction: towards theoretically informed models in EPJ Data Science.

In this article we examine the possibility of predicting election results by analysing Wikipedia traffic going to different articles related to the parties involved in the election.

Unlike similar work in which socially generated online data is used in an automated learning system to predict the electoral results, without much understanding of mechanisms, here we try to provide a theoretical understanding of voters’ information seeking behaviour around election time and use that understanding to make predictions.


Left panel shows the normalized daily views of the article on the European Parliament Election, 2009 in different langue editions of Wikipedia. The right panel shows the relative change between 2009 and 2014 election turnout in each country vs the relative change in the page view counts of the election article in the corresponding Wikipedia language edition. Germany and Czech Republic are marked as outliers from the general trend. 

We test our model on a variety of countries in the 2009 and 2014 European Parliament elections. We show that Wikipedia offers good information about changes in overall turnout at elections and also about changes in vote share for parties. It gives a particularly strong signal for new parties which are emerging to prominence.

We use these results to enhance existing theories about the drivers of aggregate patterns in online information seeking, by suggesting that:

voters are cognitive misers who seek information only when considering changing their vote.

This shows the importance of informal online information in forming the opinions of swing voters, and emphasizes the need for serious consideration of the potentials of systems like Wikipedia by parties, campaign organizers, and institutions which regulate elections.

Read more here.

P-values: misunderstood and misused

Since I launched this blog, I always wanted to write something about the dangers of big data! Things that can go wrong easily when you study a large scale transactional data. Obviously, I haven’t done this!

But recently we (Bertie, my PhD Student and I) just finished a paper titled: P-values: misunderstood and misused.

Of course statistical “misunderstanding” is one of the dangers of big data. Calculating p-values has become the most-used method to prove the “significance” of your analysis. However, as we say in the abstract:

P-values are widely used in both the social and natural sciences to quantify the statistical significance of observed results. The recent surge of big data research has made p-value an even more popular tool to test the significance of a study. However, substantial literature has been produced critiquing how p-values are used and understood. In this paper we review this recent critical literature, much of which is routed in the life sciences, and consider its implications for social scientific research. We provide a coherent picture of what the main criticisms are, and draw together and disambiguate common themes. In particular, we explain how the False Discovery Rate is calculated, and how this differs from a p-value. We also make explicit the Bayesian nature of many recent criticisms, a dimension that is often underplayed or ignored. We also identify practical steps to help remediate some of the concerns identified, and argue that p-values need to be contextualised within (i) the specific study, and (ii) the broader field of inquiry.


“Significant”; taken from  http://xkcd.com/882/


Wikipedia readership around the UK general election

I already have written about the Wikipedia-Shapps story. So, that is not the main topic of this post! But when that topic was still hot, some people asked me whether I think anyone ever actually reads the Wikipedia articles about politicians? Why should it be important at all what is written in those articles? This post tackles that question. How much do people refer to Wikipedia to read about politics, specially around the election time?

Let’s again consider the Shapps’ case. Below, you can see number of daily page views of  of the Wikipedia article about him.

Screenshot from 2015-05-04 22:57:35

As you see, there are two HUGE peaks of around 7,000 and 14,500 views per day on top of a rather steady daily page view of sub-1000. The first peak appeared when “he admitted that he had [a] second job as ‘millionaire web marketer’ while [he was] MP“, and  the second one when the Wikipedia incident happened. Interesting to me is that while the first peak is related a much more important event, the second peak related to what I tend to call a minor event, is more than twice as large as the first one. Ok, so this might be just the case of Shapps and mostly due to media effects surrounding the controversy. How about the other politicians, say the party leaders? See the diagrams below.

Screenshot from 2015-05-04 22:57:45

A very large peak is evident in all the curves for all the party leaders with a peak of 22,000 views per day for Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green party. Yes, that’s due to the iTV leaders’ debate on the 2nd of April. If you saw our previous post on search behaviour, you shouldn’t be surprised; surprising is the absence of a second peak around the BBC leaders’ debate on 16th of April, especially when you see the diagrams from our other post on Google search volumes.

How about the parties? How many people read about them on Wikipedia? Check it out below.

Screenshot from 2015-05-04 22:57:52

Here, there seems to be a second increase in the page views after the BBC debate on 16th April. Moreover, there is an ever widening separation between the curves of Tory-Labour-UKIP and LibDem-Green-SNP curves. This is very interesting, as Tories and Labours are the most established English parties, whereas the UKIP is among the newest ones. That’s very much related to our project on understanding the patterns of online information seeking around election times.

Elections and Social Media Presence of the Candidates

Some have called the forthcoming UK general election a Social Media Election. It might be a bit of exaggeration, but there is no doubt that both candidates and voters are very active on social media these days and take them seriously. The Wikipedia-Shapps story of last week is a good example showing how important online presence is for candidates, journalists, and of course voters. We don’t know how important this presence is in terms of shaping the votes, but at least we can look into the data and gauge the presence of the candidates and the activity of the supporters. In this post and some others we present statistics of online activity of parties, candidates, and of course voters. For an example, see the previous post on the searching behaviour of citizens around the debate times.

Who is on Twitter?

Candidates and parties are very much debated by supporters on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. But how active are candidates themselves on these platforms? In this post we show simply how many candidates from each party and in which constituencies have a Twitter account. Some of them might be more active than others and some might tweet very rarely, and we will analyse this activity in the next posts. Here we count only who has any kind of publicly known account.


Geographical distribution of candidates who have Twitter account.

The figure above shows the geographical distributions of candidates for each party and whether they have a Twitter account. There are some interesting results in there. For example, Labour has the largest number of Twitter-active candidates, whereas ALL the SNP candidates tweet. While LibDem and Green parties have the same number of accounts, normalised by the overall number of constituencies that they are standing in, Green seems to be more Twitter-enthusiastic. UKIP loses the Twitter game both in absolute number and proportion.

Who is on Wikipedia?

Having a Twitter account is something of a personal decision.  A candidate decides to have one and it’s totally up to them what to tweet. The difference in the case of Wikipedia, is that ideally candidates would not create or edit one about themselves. Also the type of information that you can learn about a candidate on their Wikipedia page is very different to what you can gain by reading their tweets.

Geographical distribution of the candidates, whom Wikipedia has an article about.

Geographical distribution of the candidates, whom Wikipedia has an article about.

The figure above shows the constituencies that the candidates standing in are featured in the largest online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. Here, Tories are the absolute winners, in terms of the number of articles. Greens are the least “famous” candidates and LibDem are well behind the big two. In the next post we will explore often voters turn to Wikipedia to learn about the parties and candidates, and I’m sure by reading that you’ll be convinced that being featured on Wikipedia is important!


All right, so far, Labour won Twitter presence and Tories took Wikipedia (remember all the SNP’s also have a Twitter account). But how about the gender of the candidates? Is there any gender-related feature in social presence pattern of the candidates?

First let’s have a look at the gender distribution of the candidates.

Geographical distribution of the candidates colour-coded by gender.

Geographical distribution of the candidates colour-coded by gender.

As you see in the figure above, there are fewer female candidates than male ones across all the parties. Only 12% of the UKIP candidates are female while the Greens have the highest proportion at 38%. Tories sit right next to UKIP on the list of the most male oriented parties. There is also a clear pattern that most of the constituencies in the centre have male candidates.

How about social media?

Among all the candidates, 20% of male candidates are featured in Wikipedia, whereas this is about 17% for female candidates. Almost half of the Tories male candidates are in Wikipedia, whereas this goes down to 28% for their female counterparts. Only Labour female candidates have more coverage in Wikipedia compared to the males of the party, but the difference is marginal. ّIn all the other parties, males have a higher coverage rate. The tendency of Wikipedia to pay more attention to male figures is a very well known fact. 

Twitter is different. Slightly more female candidates (76%) have a Twitter account than male candidates (69%). Almost all (96%) of Labour females tweet, and Tory female candidates are more active than their male candidates. This pattern however is lost for the UKIP candidates, as 52% of their males are on Twitter compared to only 44% of their female candidates (who have the lowest rate among all the party-gender groups).


The data that we used to produced the maps and figures come mainly from a very interesting crowd-sourced project called yournextmp. However, we further validated the data using the Wikipedia and Twitter API’s. If you want to have a copy, just get in touch!

When and Where is Citizen Science happening?

Citizen Science is research undertaken by professional scientists and members of the public collaboratively. The best example of it is Zooniverse.

Since it first launched as a single project called Galaxy Zoo in 2007, the Zooniverse has grown into the world’s largest citizen science platform, with more than 25 science projects and over 1 million registered volunteer citizen scientists. While initially focused on astronomy projects, such as those exploring the surfaces of the moon and the planet Mars, the platform now offers volunteers the opportunity to read and transcribe old ship logs and war diaries, identify animals in nature capture photos, track penguins, listen to whales communicating and map kelp from space.

We have been running a project to reveal the taxonomy and ecology of contributions to the Zooniverse. The project is now towards its end. And we have just released the first short report:
After dinner: the best time to create 1.5 million dollars of ground-breaking science

Count this! In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, NASA’s Great Observatories. Image: Nasa Marshall Space Flight Center.

Wikipedia sockpuppetry: linking accounts to real people is pure speculation

Will the real Grant Shapps please stand up? ViciousCritic/Totally Socks, (CC BY-NC-SA)

You must have heard about the recent accusation of Grant Shapps by the Guardian. Basically, the Guardian claims that Shapps has been editing his own Wikipedia page and “Wikipedia has blocked a user account on suspicions that it is being used by the Conservative party chairman, Grant Shapps, or someone acting on his behalf”.

In a short piece that I wrote for The Conversation I try to explain how these things work in Wikipedia, what they mean,  and basically how unreliable these accusations are.

There are two issues here:

First, conflict of interest, for which Wikipedia guidelines suggest that “You should not create or edit articles about yourself, your family, or friends.” But basically it’s more a moral advice, because it’s technically impossible to know the real identity of editors. Unless the editors disclose their personal information deliberately.

The second point is that the account under discussion is banned by a Wikipedia admin not because of conflict of interest (which is anyway not a reason to ban a user), but Sockpuppetry: “The use of multiple Wikipedia user accounts for an improper purpose is called sock puppetry”. BUT, Sockpuppetry is not generally a good cause for banning a user either. It’s prohibited, only when used to mislead the editorial community or violate any other regulation.

Sock puppets are detected by certain type of editors who have very limited access to confidential data of users such as their IP-addresses, their computed and operating systems settings and their browser. This type of editor is called a CheckUser, and I used to serve as a CheckUser on Wikipedia for several years.

In this case the accounts that are “detected” as sock puppets have not been active simultaneously — there is a gap of about 3 years between their active periods. And this not only makes it very hard to claim that any rule or regulation is violated, but also, for this very long time gap, it is technically impossible for the CheckUser to observe any relation between the accounts under discussion.

Actually, the admin who has done the banning admits that his action has been mostly because of behavioural similarity (similarity between the edits performed by the two users and their shared political interests).

Altogether, I believe the banning has no reliable grounds and it’s based on pure speculation, and also the Guardian accusations are way beyond what you can logically infer from the facts and evidence.

How Big Data will change our lives and our understanding of them

… If the invention of telescopes provided us with the ability to understand how galaxies behave, and the microscope allowed us to find the cure of such a huge amount of diseases, this century we are going to understand much more about the social systems because of big data. There is no doubt that humans are much more complicated than atoms or even planets and stars, but with the help of powerful mathematical tools and our ever-faster computers we will be able to find and reveal the universal laws of human societies in a numerical framework.

… Read More at Dataconomy. 

Image Credit: William Pearce