Tag Archives: topic modelling

Free as in trams: using text analytics to analyse public submissions

The opportunity

As documented elsewhere on this blog, I recently spent four years of my life playing with computational methods for analysing text, hoping to advance, in some small way, the use of such methods within social science. Along the way, I became interested in using topic models and related techniques to assist the development of public policy. Governments regularly invite public comment on things like policy proposals, impact assessments, and inquiries into controversial issues. Sometimes, the public’s response can be overwhelming, flooding a government department or parliamentary office with hundreds or thousands of submissions, all of which the government is obliged to somehow ‘consider’.

Not having been directly at the receiving end of this process, I’m not entirely sure how the teams responsible go about ‘considering’ thousands of public submissions. But this task strikes me as an excellent use-case for computational techniques that, with minimal supervision, can reveal thematic structures within large collections of texts. I’m not suggesting that we can delegate to computers the task of reading public submissions: that would be wrong even if it were possible. What we can do, however, is use computers to assist the process of navigating, interpreting and organising an overwhelming number of submissions.

A few years back, I helped a panellist on the Northern Territory’s Scientific Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracturing to analyse concerns about social impacts expressed in more than 600 public submissions. Rather than manually reading every submission to see which ones were relevant, I used a computational technique called probabilistic topic modelling to automatically index the submissions according to the topics they discussed. I was then able to focus my attention on those submissions that discussed social impacts, making the job a whole lot easier than it otherwise would have been. In addition, the topic model helped me to categorise the submissions according to the types of social impacts they discussed, and provided a direct measurement of how much attention each type of impact had received.

This experience proved that computational text analysis methods can indeed be useful for assessing public input to policy processes. However, it was far from perfect case study, as I was operating only on the periphery of the assessment process. The value of computational methods could be even greater if they were incorporated into the process from the outset. In that case, for example, I could have indexed the submissions against topics besides social impacts. As well as making life easier for the panellists responsible for other topics, a more complete topical index would have enabled an easy analysis of which issues were of most interest to each category of stakeholder, or to all submitters taken together.

In this post, I want to illustrate how topic modelling and other computational text analysis methods can contribute to the assessment of public submissions to policy issues. I do this by performing a high-level analysis of submissions to the Victorian parliament about a proposal to expand Melbourne’s ‘free tram zone’. I chose this particular inquiry because it has not yet concluded (submissions have closed, but the report is not due until December) and because it received more than 400 hundred submissions, which although perhaps not an overwhelming number, is surely enough to create a sense of foreboding in the person who has to read them all.

This analysis meant to be demonstrative rather than definitive. The methods I’ve used are experimental and could be refined. More importantly, these methods are not supposed to stand on their own, but rather should be integrated into the rest of the analytical process, which obviously I am not doing, since I do not work for the Victorian Government. In other words, my aim here is not to provide an authoritative take on the content of the submissions, but to demonstrate how certain computational methods could assist the task of analysing these submissions. Continue reading

TroveKleaner: a Knime workflow for correcting OCR errors

In a nutshell:

  • I created a Knime workflow — the TroveKleaner — that uses a combination of topic modelling, string matching and other methods to correct OCR errors in large collections of texts. You can download it from GitHub.
  • It works, but does not correct all errors. It doesn’t even attempt to do so. Instead of examining every word in the text, it builds a dictionary of high-confidence errors and corrections, and uses the dictionary to make substitutions in the text.
  • It’s worth a look if you plan to perform computational analyses on a large collection of error-ridden digitised texts. It may also be of interest if you want to learn about topic modelling, string matching, ngrams, semantic similarity measures, and how all these things can be used in combination.

O-C-aarghh!

This post discusses the second in a series of Knime workflows that I plan to release for the purpose of mining newspaper texts from Trove, that most marvellous collection of historical newspapers and much more maintained by the National Library of Australia. The end-game is to release the whole process for geo-parsing and geovisualisation that I presented in this post on my other blog. But revising those workflows and making them fit for public consumption will be a big job (and not one I get paid for), so I’ll work towards it one step at a time.

Already, I have released the Trove KnewsGetter, which interfaces with the Trove API to allow you to download newspaper texts in bulk. But what do you do with 20,000 newspaper articles from Trove?

Before you even think about how to analyse this data, the first thing you will probably do is cast your eyes over it, just to see what it looks like.

Cue horror.

A typical reaction upon seeing Trove’s OCR-derived text for the first time. Continue reading

A thesis relived: using text analytics to map a PhD journey

 

Your thesis has been deposited.

Is this how four years of toil was supposed to end? Not with a bang, but with a weird sentence from my university’s electronic submission system? In any case, this confirmation message gave me a chuckle and taught me one new thing that could be done to a thesis. A PhD is full of surprises, right till the end.

But to speak of the end could be premature, because more than two months after submission, one thing that my thesis hasn’t been yet is examined. Or if it has been, the examination reports are yet to be deposited back into the collective consciousness of my grad school.

The lack of any news about my thesis is hardly keeping me up at night, but it does make what I am about to do in this post a little awkward. Following Socrates, some people would argue that an unexamined thesis is not worth reliving. At the very least, Socrates might have cautioned against saying too much about a PhD experience that might not yet be over. Well, too bad: I’m throwing that caution to the wind, because what follows is a detailed retrospective of my PhD candidature.

Before anyone starts salivating at the prospect of reading sordid details about about existential crises, cruel supervisors or laboratory disasters, let me be clear that what follows is not a psychodrama or a cautionary tale. Rather, I plan to retrace the scholastic journey that I took through my PhD candidature, primarily by examining what I read, and when.

I know, I know: that sounds really boring. But bear with me, because this post is anything but a literature review. This is a data-driven, animated-GIF-laden, deep-dive into the PhD Experience. Continue reading