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2015

Hacking the election

11 May 2015

RGU Hack - image 1

What can social media tell us about politics? Abertay students recently won the first ever RGU Hack with software which analyses huge volumes of Twitter messages.

The team built a proof-of-concept sentiment analysis detection program to process tweets and understand the relative performance of the major political parties.

We caught up with the team to find out more about the contest, and the challenge of using technology to understand social media sentiments on a massive scale.

How pleased are you to win the first RGU Hack?

We are delighted. The event was fantastic and we all learned a lot in a very short period of time. Some of the team had never attended a hackathon before, but we were eager to gain as much experience as we could in the 24 hours the event ran for.

At the start of the event we were presented a range of three challenges from different areas of computing where we had to choose and develop a solution to one.

RGU Hack - image 2

What did the team decide to build, and why?

The team decided to build a sentiment analysis detection programme for Twitter originally based around the general election, as one of the challenges given to us was the visualisation of ‘big data’. No one in the team has any particular expertise in this field, so in the spirit of the event we thought it was an ideal opportunity to learn something new.

While we thought 24 hours would be plenty of time to plan and develop a good solution to this challenge, we were faced with numerous problems along the way which halted development at several points in the first nine hours.

The problems encountered meant our original idea was unfeasible and required a complete rethinking of how we were going to approach our challenge. Our team, which consisted of students from first year right through to postgraduate, were effective at discussing alternative ways to approach the challenge, and came up with a solution which mitigated the problems encountered.

In the final hours (while battling the effects of sleep deprivation), the team decided to build a solution which displayed public opinion of the seven major political parties on a histogram. We managed to get a working proof-of-concept program within the event, with a lot of ideas about how the program can be improved in the future.

RGU Hack - image 3

How important do you think technology is becoming to politics and elections?

The interest around politics has grown exponentially in the UK, especially here in Scotland due to last year’s independence referendum.

With the internet and its wealth of information becoming accessible to more homes in the past decade, we have consequently witnessed a transferral of how people seek out and consume information about politics, with more people resorting to doing online research on the election and each political party rather than reading tabloid newspapers.

Over the course of the event we realised that people are using social media to find out information about various parties, as well as using this medium to state their own opinions. We found that the easiest way to discover and analyse opinion trends is to see what people are saying about each party on social media, and whether it was said in a positive or negative way.

This allows people to see the opinion over time, as well as whether a particular event – such as a televised debate – has had a positive or negative impact on people’s opinions.

How has studying at Abertay helped develop your computing skills for events like this?

The progress we made was impressive, especially in such a short timescale, but more importantly we all learned a great deal about web technologies in the process.

This learning built on the vast range of technologies the team have been exposed to as part of their Ethical Hacking course at Abertay, and which are regularly discussed at the Ethical Hacking Society.

As part of our learning throughout the course at Abertay, we are frequently required to plan and develop projects, often around technologies which we are unfamiliar with, which prepares us to efficiently undertake the challenges we face in events like this.

To find out more about studying computing at Abertay University, please visit our course pages:

BSc (Hons) Computing
BSc (Hons) Computing & Networks
BSc (Hons) Ethical Hacking
MSc Ethical Hacking & Computer Security

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