Helpful as they are, there is a limit to what can be achieved politically with your mobile phone. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Twitter politics is no substitute for ideas and strong campaigns

There is good reason to suspect that much of the energy spent on online campaigning is wasted entrenching divisions or preaching aggressively to an already zealous choir.

The digital revolution has disrupted old ways of doing business in every sector of the economy, every profession and every workplace. Politics is no exception, although the impact of new technology has not been as instantly alarming in parliament as it was, for example, in the music and film industries, where analogue business models collapsed. The effect on politics of millions of citizens conducting much of their day-to-day lives online has been more subtle but that does not make it less profound.

One change is that the internet creates a new terrain where political battles can be won or lost. This trend was in evidence at the last general election but since then social media networks – chief among them Facebook and Twitter – have penetrated deeper into society and become a ubiquitous feature of journalism. However, it is worth noting that, despite much breathless chatter about an internet election in 2010, it was the rather more established medium of television that had the larger impact on the campaign, because of the live debates between the three main party leaders. The same could easily be true in 2015.

A culture change to be celebrated is the effectiveness of new media at amplifying originality and exposing the sham of robotic message discipline. MPs who fire off identikit tweets with the “line to take” look ridiculous, while those who have the self-confidence to express themselves in their own voice come across well. It is an environment where authenticity flourishes and mindless artifice fails. Perhaps a result of that process will be a change in the way parties think about their communications strategies – moving away from dependency on the monolithic soundbite and rehabilitating the use of English as people speak it.

There are hazards, too. A political cycle that already seemed breathless at the pace of the rolling television news channels has become frenetic, sometimes to the point of hysteria. Perspective is often a casualty.

A case in point was last month’s Budget or, more specifically, the ill-advised online poster launched in its aftermath by the Conservatives, celebrating cuts in bingo and beer duty as helping “hard-working people do more of the things they enjoy”. The patronising tone, made excruciating by the third-person pronoun “they” (implying that “we” Conservatives amuse ourselves differently), earned the poster instant ridicule. It reinforced a caricature of haughty Tories and provoked uncomfortable questions for the Chancellor the following day when he would much rather have been enjoying the positive coverage of his newly announced pension reforms. It was, in other words, a news event in Westminster – but one that hindsight proves to have been insubstantial. Labour “won Twitter” on the afternoon of the Budget, which is no consolation for having lost the debate in the chamber and lost ground in opinion polls in the ensuing days.

There is good reason to suspect that much of the energy spent on online campaigning is wasted entrenching divisions or preaching aggressively to an already zealous choir. Strategists in the main parties appear to have reached that conclusion and increasingly focus their digital efforts on web pages that harvest email addresses and other data from potential supporters with a view to converting them to practical activism. The real value of a digital campaign lies in its capacity to mobilise people in the analogue world. The same applies to online lobbying, petition-signing and protest. So-called clicktivism can be effective as a method for raising awareness but it risks breeding complacency by generating a narcissistic hit of instant moral gratification. Ultimately there is a limit to what can be achieved in politics, as in journalism, by sitting in an office and staring at a computer screen.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism