To free data or not to …

In some countries downloaders and uploaders are regarded as criminals: in the US you can expect litigation by record companies and artists when you share your music. In France your Internet connection wil be cut off when you’ve been downloading music and/or video’s. This shows that the Internet isn’t a safe haven for people that want to freely share information.

This is totally opposite to what the founding father of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee thinks it should be. Berners-Lee is the advocate for free data. Organizations, in particular governments, should open their databases on-line, creating a level playing field for all. It also allows for members of the general public to contribute to datasets. Also, people can, if they have the expertise, to analyse these data and share the results in a numerical or visual style. This can be risky because as is possible with numerical information, visualizations can be deceiving. The proverb “there are lies, damn lies and statistics” should be “there are lies, damn lies, statistics and visualizations”.

A few initiatives are the US government, the UK government, and the Guardian. The sharing of data is, or it should be, common practice in scientific circles. In the Netherlands DANS archives scientific data and grants access (however, not for all). In academics, unfortunately, it doesn’t always pay to share your data for an important reason. Increasingly academics are told by university management to publish in ISI-ranked journals. That’s OK. But archiving data, which is important for secondary analyses and enabling others to check your work, takes a lot of time but is not rewarded by management. The time it takes to prepare the data and report for archiving could also be spent on new research articles and data collection. So, given the choice between a time consuming unrewarded archiving and writing new manuscripts, the choice will often be the latter. Unfortunately, this can only change when universities reward archiving the same as journal publications. I feel this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Below are two videos where Tim Berners-Lee explains the idea and shows some examples.

Online political widgetry and gadgetry

In my research on politicians’  use of Twitter, I came across these widgets showing live updates of MPs tweeting throughout the day. To me these are a quick way (although not always reliable) to collect the usernames of tweeting politician.

Here are some links to pages aggregating political tweets:
Tweetcongress is a basic page showing who in the US congress is tweeting, how often and what about.

Kamertweets is a Dutch version also showing basic data. It let’s you embed the latest tweets on your own webpage:

Then there is of course the British Tweetminster. This seems to be, of these three, the most elaborate one. Not only does Tweetminster provide the basic data. It allows you to use html-code to embed tweets onto your page, as you can see below:

Not only that, they also provide html-code to embed the Tweetometer (a spin-off of the famous Swingometer in the UK):

This is all nice, and although these widgets were not intended for analysis purposes, it would be very nice to see some more elaborate analysis of the role Twitter plays in political communication. Here at Yeungnam University’s WCU Webometrics Institute, we are developing a number of tools that allows us to collect and visualize data (yes yes shameless self promotion). Analysis takes place with regular software tools (SPSS, Pajek, Ucinet). Papers are coming available soon at a conference near you.

Twitter and elections

2009 and 2010 are exciting years to study the Internet. Anyway, I think so. Some of you may know my academic life revolves around micro-blogging these last months and the coming ones as well. The reason is that Twitter is becoming more and more popular amongst politicians. Not only that, in 2009 we had the European parliament elections where Twitter was used by some of the candidates. In 2010 we had the local elections in the Netherlands. Some two weeks before that we (i.e. the Dutch) had a governmental meltdown: the social democratic party (PvdA) decided to quit the government. Therefore, we also have general elections on June 9th. And then there is South Korea, where on June 2nd, there are local elections. Oh yes, the UK has general elections as well: Gordon Brown has to set a date that is before June 3rd.

As for South Korea, some interesting thongs are happening here. Apparently the political parties are stepping up their online campaign activities, according this newspaper article.The Grand National Party handed out smart-phones to national assembly members and candidates, hoping they will pick up text-messaging and Twitter to connect to the public. The Democratic Party also stepped up their online activities, creating a network party. These effort can be necessary. I learned that politicians in South Korea have a considerable

The Korean Election Committee however seems to have some problems with these increasing online political activities. To ensure fairness in election campaigning several regulations apply. Striving for fairness in campaigning is of course essential. At the same it seems quite impossible to banish Twitter or other kinds of micro-blogging services (let’s not forget there are other ones besides Twitter, such as Me2day, Plurk and Renren). First of all, micro-blogging is sort of an informal way of disseminating information. It’s low profile, no dressed up website, but merely short texts. At the same time the messages are only actively targeted to those that explicitly subscribed to the Tweets of the candidate. These are the ones that are already interested in politics in general and the candidate in particular. These probably will need little convincing to vote for the candidate as it is. Furthermore, the question is to what extent the Tweets are actually campaigning messages or merely chitchat. Tweeting about daily issues (enjoying your coffee, being stuck in traffic) doesn’t look like political campaigning. That is, political campaigning in the strictest sense. For some time now, politicians, at least in western countries increasingly personalize their campaigns, presenting themselves as mortals having the same problems other people also have. By doing so they hope, is their guess, they appear as normal people made of flesh and blood and hopefully more likable. This in turn should ultimately lead to more votes in the elections. The jury’s verdict on that is still out.

Just recently, David Nieborg (University of Amsterdam), guest in the radio show Tros Radio Online, said that the new social-democratic party leader Job Cohen (the former leader Wouter Bos resigned two weeks after the local elections and 12 weeks prior to the general elections)  should start using Twitter. He predicted this could lead to four more seats in parliament. Well, I’m not that sure. Twitter is not online a micro-blogging service, but also a social-network site. A characteristic of a social network is homophily: people that are similar tend to form a social network. So what happens is that politicians using twitter are primarily preaching to the converted instead of the disbelievers. However, the disbelievers is where the electoral gain is to be expected. So, the effectiveness of Twitter and other social network sites as campaigning tools for more electoral gain is expected to be limited. However, the final verdict is to be passed by empirical research.