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Social media stirs public dialogue in Heidelberg

If you have children who are old enough to vote, maybe you’ve noticed that they rarely watch the news or read the paper. They’d rather chat with friends on social media. When it comes to politics, they seem disinterested, if not disengaged. Pay closer attention, however, and you’ll discover they’re not apathetic at all; they’re just different. They might not echo the tribal loyalties of their parents’ generation, but they still have democratic spirit — and strong opinions — as we have learned in the office of Heidelberg Mayor Eckart Würzner.

Lying on the banks of the river Neckar, in a steep valley below the Odenwald Mountains, Heidelberg is a gem of a city. It boasts a baroque Old Town and a renaissance castle that was battered by Louis XIV’s artillery in 1693. It was the center of the Romantic Movement in German literature. Until recently, it was the headquarters of US military forces in Europe. It is also a busy and industrious city with 150,000 inhabitants.

In order to understand and meet the needs of Heidelberg citizens, Mayor Würzner and the city council need to hear from them. These days, however, citizens are less inclined to attend public meetings, read the newspaper or listen to public broadcast media. Instead, younger citizens rely on social media to stay informed. They voice their opinions online instead of at city hall, but they still expect the mayor and council to hear what they’re saying.

We learned this in Heidelberg following unanticipated reaction to a proposed multimillion-euro convention center. The council approved the project by a big majority. At first, the public seemed disinterested. But we discovered — only by accident — that voters were talking about it on Facebook. And the opposition appeared strong.

Based on that discovery, the council shelved its plans for a new convention center. And the mayor’s office understood that it needed more reliable ways to monitor and gauge public opinion and sentiment. After researching options for a technology solution, we chose SAS® Social Media Analytics.

What are they thinking?

Analytics dashboard for sentiment analysis

Insight into detailed social commentary over time allows the City of Heidelberg to understand public sentiment in real time for relevant current events.

SAS, whose German headquarters is just upstream of Heidelberg, helps us understand the broad trends in public sentiment expressed on platforms like public Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube accounts, as well as in blogs and discussion forums.

We only listen to comments expressed in the public domain. There is no invasion of privacy — nor could there be: Germany’s data protection laws are among the strictest in the world.

With social media analytics, we’ve learned that our citizens are less concerned with the big issues and are more concerned with the smaller local topics, such as the quality of playgrounds and streets.

We’ve also learned that while people don’t often respond to direct questions, they do discuss the information we publish. When we announce a project, the volume of Internet traffic goes up.

Fact or fiction?

One drawback we must account for when monitoring social conversations is the fact that information shared by private individuals online is not subject to the same rigorous fact-checking as a newspaper of record or a public broadcaster. It can be difficult to distinguish rumor or opinion from the truth.

Users can understand social sentiment over time across content types and can drill down into individual assets for detailed insight.

Sentiment expressed in social media revealed that the most vocal campaigns – the “bushfires” – are usually short-lived. Those that do persist, however, can be dangerous. When a campaign of disinformation derails public support for a policy and when rumor turns into urban myth, the public is left disenfranchised. By identifying such trends early, a democratically elected public authority is better placed to reassure the public with reliable information.

Sentiment analysis can help politicians learn how to communicate with the public more effectively. Some words and ideas resonate better than others, sometimes in unexpected ways. Using SAS to find patterns in hundreds of thousands of social media comments, Heidelberg is able to build a “sentiment taxonomy.”

For example, when we stated that the mayor “warrants” privatization of Heidelberg’s water supply, our text analysis of social media discussions revealed negative sentiment toward the word “warrants.” So now we avoid it. On the other hand, if we state that someone “succeeded” in growing several tons of cannabis in Heidelberg, the sentiment is positive — which is unfortunate, because it is strictly illegal to grow cannabis in Heildelberg!

With social media analytics, we hear the voice of the people, we dispel rumors and disinformation and we inform our citizens as they make up their own minds about the issues they care about.

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