UK Election Polling on Twitter


Ok, this post is way off beam compared to what’s gone before, so if you are neither interested in a) Twitter; b) the UK General Election, then don’t read any further.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending lots of time polishing off an idea I had a couple of months ago. It was inspired by the site that Ben Marsh put together at http://uksnow.benmarsh.co.uk/, using a hashtag on twitter to gather the observations of folks looking out their window at the snowfall when the UK was hit by a couple of snowstorms in January/February of this year. You could look at his map of the UK and at the rainfall radar charts on the Met Office website and see a direct correlation between the two, verifying the accuracy of the crowd-sourced data on the uksnow website.

I thought that a similar idea could be applied to people’s opinion on who they would vote for at the upcoming general election. The main problems were:

  • Ben used the first part of people’s postcode to put a symbol on a map, but quick research showed this wouldn’t be possible for mapping to constituencies, which I wanted to do. Postal districts and constituency boundaries do not match. Therefore the full postcode would be needed and would people stick that in a tweet?
  • Ben had a simple score out of ten for folks to measure how heavy the snow was. This, in my system, would be the party they’d vote for, but there are many of those, and the variety of spellings and abbreviations people might use could lead to missed votes.

Ideally I’d like to have just parsed tweets to establish sentiment, but I quickly dismissed this as being far too difficult, although I note there are a couple of sites experimenting with this approach, eg tweetminster.

So the journey began when I spoke to the renowned Twitter expert at work, IBM Distinguish Engineer and fellow Isle of Wight resident, Andy Stanford-Clark. He created the twittering ferries and twittering house. He reckoned it was a worthwhile idea, and put me in touch with a couple of other folks who had done web and twitter based applications, Chris Phillips and Ben Hardill. After discussing my idea with them, they were sufficiently interested to join and help me to put it together, and I especially needed their help because, hey, I’m not particularly technically proficient, and know nothing about websites beyond very basic html.

We didn’t do a great deal for a few weeks, mostly due to any of us being away from the office, other than putting together an architecture picture. Fast forward through the three of us finally pulling stuff together, and Chris registering our domain and pulling in one of his friends to design the website, and twitvoteuk was born. The how to page on the site describes how the internals work and so does a blog posting from another Andy from work (Piper this time), so I won’t cover it here.

How will this play out? I don’t know, but the most important is to get as many opinions recorded in our system as possible. Two interesting things have happened. The first was last Monday, shortly after we’d activated a form on the website so tweeps didn’t have to post their full postcode to the web, and some LibDem mailing list must have published our website and encouraged folks to use it, and for a while that afternoon Chris and I were chatting on instant messanging, asking each other what was wrong with our system because every single vote coming in was for the LibDems. Fortunately all was good with the system, it was only a party mobilising its supporters. Ever since, they’ve stayed ahead.

The other incident was on the evening of the same day when I noticed that someone had posted an opinion for the Pirate Party UK in a constituency where the BBC didn’t show they had a candidate. I tweeted about this from our @twitvoteuk id, and quickly got a response back from one of their supporters saying we didn’t state whether we were polling for parties people would vote for, or who they would like to vote for. Ever since, there has been the occasional tweet encouraging Pirate Party supporters to grab available constituencies and they remain in second place in our poll.

A final note – while I have political opinions, I do not support any particular party and this endeavour has no political aim. It simply offers a technical solution to the problem of polling a population of people and visualising that data in a geographical way.

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One Response to “UK Election Polling on Twitter”

  1. TwitVoteUK: Online Innovation Started On The Island | Isle of Wight News:Ventnor Blog Says:

    […] Read further background on how it came about. […]

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