Are you in a happy place?

On Friday I got round to doing something I’d been thinking of for a long while. I added location detection to my conversational psychogeography tool. Like the Is Brum Happy? system it takes the latest tweets around a location and rates emotionally sensitive words against a database to give scores for the happiness or emotional wellbeing of the place. If you’re using a HTML 5 browser (you probably are) you can let it reveal your location to the script (it’s not saved anywhere) and it will tell you if where you are (and a mile radius around) is happy right now.

Give it a go.

How Christmassy are you feeling?

The Christmas-o-meter bounder

Just a little fun seasonal project I’ve made with the layout and design help of Gavin Wray.

It works very much like my other sentiment analysis tools, but with a sprinkling of Santa’s magic. Santa’s magic in this instance being that any tweets with the words ‘Christmas’ or ‘Xmas’ in them are weighted doubly—that is the scores are counted twice for the purpose of producing the mean score.

So, try the Christmas-o-meter and see how Christmassy you’re feeling.

Is Birmingham Happy?

I’ve been running a, very rough, scrape of the Birmingham (UK) based interweb for ’emotional wellbeing’ since April of 2008. Simply put a script running twice a day read in Tweets, news headlines and (originally) blog posts and compared the words within them to a table I’d drawn up of ’emotion’ words and fairly arbitrary scores.

It was surprisingly interesting to watch: despite its roughness, the internal consistency let patterns emerge. It broadly followed weather and sports results, with some peaks and dips you could map to specific happenings, or news stories.

graph of emotion scores

It lead to a spin off focussing on Tweets from MPs, which I think influenced some of the developments that Tweetminster produced in the next year or so.

It was the patterns that lead me to keep putting off improving the algorithm, but recent Twitter API developments meant I had to do some work anyway and that (together with another project, of which more soon) gave me the impetus to give the project an overhaul. And here’s how it works now…

Twitter’s geolocation services are now much improved, so I can specify a point (the centre of Victoria Square in Birmingham) and a radius (10 miles) and get a reasonably accurate dump of Tweet data back—the algorithm calls for the most recent 1000.

Twitter is now the sole focus of data, in keeping with the ‘conversational pychogeography‘ aims of the project (in essence, words used without too much pre-meditation are more interesting than those written purely for publication). It also provides much more and more reactive data.

The words contained within these tweets are then compared to data from the University of Florida (The Affective Norms for English Words – PDF link). Within that data set each word covered (there are around a thousand in the set I’ve using) is given a score for Valence (sad to happy on a scale 0-10), Arousal (asleep to awake on a scale of 0-10) and Dominance (feeling lack of control to feeling in control  on a scale of 0-10). The scores are then collated and a mean calculated. The overall emotional wellbeing score here is calculated as a mean of the three individual means, although the scores are revealed individually on the site.

I’m unsure if combining the results in this way is the best, which is why the site reveals the working — the Twitter feed just goes with one value for ease of understanding and adds a rating adjective too:

if ($brumemotion<100){$rating="fantastic";}
if ($brumemotion<90){$rating="superb";}
if ($brumemotion<80){$rating="good";}
if ($brumemotion<70){$rating="okay";}
if ($brumemotion<60){$rating="average";}
if ($brumemotion<50){$rating="quiet";}
if ($brumemotion<40){$rating="subdued";}
if ($brumemotion<30){$rating="low";}
if ($brumemotion<20){$rating="dreadful";}
if ($brumemotion<10){$rating="awful";}

The Twitter feed produces results twice a day, and these scores are being saved to visualise more graphically, but the website updates every ten seconds (and will self-refresh if you stay on the site) and also displays a word cloud of the currently found ’emotion words’:

is Brum happy right now?

Thoughts on further development

I’ve been experimenting with more local results (here is a version running on just one Birmingham post code — B13) as well as live graphing. I also have a version that will analyse results for a hashtag—something we may use in conjunction with the Civico player to produce ‘wormals’ (graphs of sentiment) during conferences.

But for now, I’m happy to let the new algorithm bed in—wondering about the amount of data and frequency that will be required to see the most detail—and to see what patterns we can spot.

Feedback welcome. Go see for yourself or follow on Twitter.

The Big City Plan – Part 3 – How

After sounding out interested parties, mainly via twitter, a number of us met up at December’s Birmingham Social Media Café — at this point the clock was already on us, we’d only been able to see the Council’s online shortcomings once the official consultation period (legally pegged at eight weeks) had started.

It quickly became clear that we would need to produce a site that was independent from any current web presence — to counteract any fears of us attempting to unduly influence the process. I had already quickly produced a WordPress site to use — intending that “we” (whoever was interested) would use it to produce a translated version.

Big City Plan Talk
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

My partner Julia, has done a lot of work using “plain English”  and she convinced me that it was a suitable framework for us to use — she even spent a long evening translating part of the “work in progress” document as an example. The plain English campaign also offer advice and guidance via their website that would prove useful.

I chose WordPress not only because I am very confident with producing sites with it, but because its back-end interface was well known to many of the potential bloggers/translators — there wasn’t time to train people in new skills. There were other options (including CommentPress, a forked version of WP just for online document commenting), but we also had the problem of attempting to show both the original document and the plain English Version alongside each other — something that I wasn’t confident of achieving quickly with a (to me) untried system. It quickly became obvious that WordPress was the only choice in the short term.

In the meeting we decided that:

  • we had to break the document down into as small a chunks as was possible
  • the plain English version had to be absolutely free from any opinion
  • the version we produced had to match the original document structurally, so comments could be easily sorted
  • both versions needed to be viewed simultaneously
  • our version needed to be as searchable as possible, utilizing tags, metadata and whatever tools we had
  • we would collect links to information not stored within the original document, and invite further explanation from users
  • comments would not be held in moderation, and only offensive comments would be removed (in the event none had to be)
  • comments would be threaded – to facilitate debate amongst commenters
  • and it had to be done as soon as possible.

At this point we didn’t worry too much about how to feed the comments back into the official process — the opinion that we would “print them out individually and post them if necessary” was voiced. Time, with the Christmas break upon us, was the main factor.

Micheal Grimes and myself volunteered to take time over the holidays to break the consultation document down into manageable chunks and pull it into the blog structure — in the end this was more difficult to do that we anticipated due to inconsistent numbering styles and the sheer size of the piece. It also took a fair bit of WordPress hackery to get the document to sit properly in order.

Stefan Lewandowski had been part of a group of people consulted at a much earlier stage about the Big City Plan, and his contacts would be useful in smoothing the way as we were all concerned that, whatever our personal views, there was no sense in antagonising the powers that be. In fact there was tacit agreement not to talk about the plan in anything but glowing terms until the site was finished.

The Translation

The Birmingham social media community is wide, and contains a lot of talents, but for differing reasons (personal or work commitments, conflicts of interest) — while there was a lot of support and advice available to us — the number of people available to take on the translation was more limited. In the end myself, Nick Booth, Nicky Getgood, Julia Gilbert and Michael Grimes were the ones that took on the task.

Each will tell you that the job was not easy, that it was not a simple job of changing long words for shorter. I heard the Big City Plan being referred to as having been written in “regeneration-speak” and that’s what it was. Full of passive sentences (which are bad for readability), as well as unexplained acronyms and references to unexplained policies and documents. I would estimate that the team spent around 5-6 hours each an evening for three weeks working on it, which is on top of the work done on the website itself.

Testing and release

As soon as the translation was complete (and in fact just before) we released the site to a few people to test — and to comment, aware that there’s nothing as intimidating to a commenter as a blank “page”. From this we gained a lot of valuable feedback (especially from Mathew Sommerville and Tom Martin) and a good sense that the site we’d produced would be easy enough to use.

Once tweaks were made, and people blogged about it there wasn’t much turning back — we hadn’t explicitly told the council what we were doing, nor had much idea of how they’d react. Personally, I know I was worried about how it would be received — Birmingham is still quite a small town as far as personalities go. There was (still is?) a chance that it could have damaged our reputations.

Feeding comments into the consultation

At first we were pleased with the “official reaction” to the Big City Talk site (we gained links from both the offcial site and the council-run Facebook group), but attempting to organise how to feed the comments being generated into the consultation proved more problematic.

The site quickly and steadily gained a lot of intelligent comments, that it was possible to see were building on each other — in a way that the official process (online at least) didn’t facilitate. We were aware that submitting a large volume of comments needed special handling, and so tried to make it as easy as possible for the consultation workers.

It seemed that despite direct contact that there wasn’t a lot of will in the BCP team (those eventually to deal with the comments)  to work with anything that that they hadn’t already planned for. We repeatedly offered to format and deliver comments from the Big City Talk site in any way that could be done, but we received no guidance. This was disappointing, but the instructions for submitting comments formally were very clear — we were able to submit the comments on paper and also by email. While this was not as convenient as it could or should have been, all the comments were delivered in a manner that ensured they were part of the consultation. Help from the Council’s Communication Team was valuable at this point.

But, has it had a worthwhile effect?

See Also:

The Big City Plan – Part 2 – Why

I enjoy my free time, so why did I (and the rest of the team) give up huge swathes of their Christmas break and January evenings to help our local council through a consultation process?

Simply, we are all people who care deeply about our city and also believe passionately in the power of online and offline collaboration. The official online consultation system wasn’t something that we saw as able to provide the best chance to the citizens of Birmingham.

We wanted to blog about it, nay were encouraged to do so by council officials — but blogging would have been a futile and time-consuming exercise. To pick out a small part of the plan (which consisted of many different, some complementary, some opposing, wildly different options) would be to have written something inconsequential and without context.

There was also the problem of explaining the options without editorialising — as the document was very very dense and complex, that it also referenced a large number of other development plans and studies didn’t help matters.

Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

The official “consultation portal” used the Limehouse software, that had some obvious shortcomings (lack of RSS for one) but does allow commenting. However the council department responsible took the decision not to publish comments for the duration of the consultation period — as yet they still haven’t.

As I told them:

“the limehouse software was  clearly set up for users to leave comments, and to view the comments of others (there’s a search function just for this purpose).

To invite comments and then for people see no evidence of either:

a) their own comments appearing – as they would on the BBC or any newspaper site or any blog

or b) anyone else leaving any comments – which indicates that this is an unloved (unwanted?) plan

created a very bad impression.

If a site isn’t going to publish comments it should clearly say that they are being “sent to the team for consideration” and not imply that they are going to be shown.

To publish the comments is to invite debate, it could stimulate conversations around the questions — people building on other people’s ideas are more likely to both be constructive (it would lessen the chance of purely anti the “question” comment) and to be better comments “the wisdom of crowds” in effect.”

To be fair their are many people within Birmingham City Council that could have solved these issues, but for whatever reason they were too far away from the decision-making process in this instance.

The comment problem wouldn’t have been as bad if the document was easily understandable to everyone, whereas conversely if people could have used the comments online to help each other understand the document then the inaccessible language it was written in would have been mitigated against.

To fail in both ways made the online consultation — to my mind and to those of my fellow social-media types — very poor indeed. We had the skills and the motivation to do something about it.

See also:

The Big City Plan – Part 1 – Constructive Activism

Birmingham is getting a real reputation for being a place where social media doesn’t only happen, it organises and does things that are intended to create social good. From the Social Media Surgeries (developed from a concept used by Pete Ashton by Nick Booth to something almost the whole of the blogging community takes part in) to specially created social enterprises like We Share Stuff (which aims to use social media to help with digital inclusion) there seems to be a collective aim to use the technologies to help as many people as possible. The reputation has spread wide enough for Swedish journalist Axel Andén to come here just to see what we get up to and our motivations.

One of the largest projects has been our volunteer-created online consultation for Birmingham City Council’s Big City Plan — the work which Axel called “constructive activism”.

Birmingham Big City Plan
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The Big City Plan is one part of a larger plan by the council for the future of Birmingham, but it has been heavily promoted as being about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre (and by extension has an impact on the rest of the city). Over Christmas and stretching into early February 2009 the official consultation period on the draft plan (referred to by the council as the “Work In Progress Document”) happened — there were high profile events, advertising hoardings, taxi advertising and even (which I can’t really understand) awards awarded to a draft plan.

Yet there wasn’t really an online version that worked in a good and social way — which lead myself and a group of bloggers to spend huge amounts of our once free time creating a comment-able version of the document that also used plain English.

The Big City Talk site (still live although comments are closed) collected comments and passed them through the official channels, and managed to work without unduly antagonising the Council — whose work it tried to help (although by its existence was perhaps implicitly criticising).

Big City Plan Talk
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

I think that the exercise was a success, it has been well received online, perhaps as expected, but also been mentioned in the Cabinet Office’s Power of Information report.

Since the creation, process and reasoning are perhaps interesting for differing reasons I’ve decided to blog about the whole thing in a series of posts:

      Which I’ll post in order as I write them.

      Freedom Town

      Freedom Town is in Sierra Leone, but it’s also the name of an art project connecting schools in Birmingham (UK) with schools in Freedom Town. It’s being run by the education department of Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, along with a local artist and will feature the associate musicians of the organisation. The aim is to eventually enable the schools to collaborate — and a website is the ideal tool to achieve that.

      I’ve really enjoyed building it, and working with the team to make sure they understand how best to use it.

      The website is just starting to be used by the children this week, and they seem to be having fun already — as well as blogging for themselves (moderated by their teachers)  they are being encouraged to comment on the posts of others and also write about how they are finding the project.

      Some of the first work they’re doing is to make sure their School’s homepage on the site is up-to-date, and they’re also thinking about how the site should look (it has been purposely left very plain, so they can change it to suit themselves).

      Technically the site is a instalaltion of WordPress, with plugins and tweaks to handle the expected use of video and audio later in the project and also the moderation issues of having hundreds of young people posting.  So far it seems to be working well, and the children have found blogging quite easy. I’ll post a link to the site when it really gets going — looking forward to reading and hearing the results.

      The Bounder

      I’ve moved my personal blog from this site to, which is a WordPress MU site that I’ve been using to store quick projects.

      WordPress MU (Multi User) is great for quickly setting up blogs (or sites) and very powerful in regards to controls over those blogs from a central interface. I used Sandbox to help set up the new design — and as usual it really helped wrestle the different parts of the theme together.

      If you already follow the blog (formerly at /ramblings) then you shouldn’t notice the change form the RSS feed, nor should there be any broken links. If you don’t read it, but fancy seeing the strange things that I find on the Internet or reading the odd things I write that aren’t about social media — then you should get over to now…

      Cole – Raine Chartered Surveyors – WordPress theme and customisation

      Another site built on WordPress as a back-end, the Cole-Raine site features brochure pages as well as a fully featured property finder database and article library. The site was built to a design specification supplied and went live in a little under a month from first contact.

      The property finder was developed using WordPress’ existing category structure, a very cost effective solution.

      New site for the Birmingham Conservation Trust

      I’ve just set the new site for the Birmingham Conservation Trust live. I’ve advised on how it could work, and done the final coding and design.

      The Trust is a charity that tasks itself “‘to preserve and enhance Birmingham’s threatened architectural heritage. … to promote an enjoyment and understanding of the city’s historic buildings’”. Most famously they restored Birmingham’s Back to Backs (now a National Trust attraction).

      The site itself has been in the planning for a long time, but was held up when the Trust decided to go through a change of image. I’m pleased that the new look works much better on the web than the previous style.

      The move to a WordPress based CMS and blog should help with keeping the content fresh — often a problem for charity sites (where everyone always had many calls on their time). That should in turn help the engagement of users with the site, and hopefully contribute to the efforts (physical and fund-raising) of the Trust.

      Continue reading New site for the Birmingham Conservation Trust