An in-depth look at The Signal, the Yahoo! News prediction blog.
Editor’s note: Yahoos are known for producing great work in a pinch. But do you ever wonder what it takes to make the impossible possible? In our new behind-the-scenes series, we take a look at the people and teams for whom no obstacle is too big. This time we’re taking a look at The Signal
, a Yahoo! News predictions blog featuring real-time forecasts and sentiment on politics, economics, and more. Yahoo! Economist David Rothschild and Yahoo! Principal Research Scientist David Pennock keep readers up-to-date on the very latest in the 2012 race to the White House.
We interviewed David Rothschild to learn more about the work he and David Pennock do for The Signal. This Friday, February 17, follow @YahooInc
on Twitter for a special interview with @pennockd
at 1:30 p.m. (Pacific).Q: The Signal has been referred to as the “mother of all political prediction engines.” What does your team do that’s different from the standard polls we hear about?
A: Standard polls provide very useful raw data points for predicting elections, but are not themselves predictions. Polls ask people how they would vote if an election were held that day. But, we actually know a lot about how the world will change between the poll and Election Day. First, there are known biases between polls and outcomes such as the anti-incumbency bias; polls for incumbents are systemically lower than how incumbents perform on Election Day. When we utilize just polls to create a prediction that is just one of a few biases we can address. Second, we know things like how much money the candidates have left; a candidate with access to a lot more money should be expected to shift voters his/her way before Election Day. We know about scandals and unique policy positions that may not have trickled down to the average voter yet.
Our models incorporate this extra information by utilizing—along with polls—prediction markets, fundamental models, and Yahoo! Games/polls. Think of a prediction market as a stock exchange where people trade candidates instead of companies. Prediction markets incorporate polling data, but also disaggregate data about the candidates and the campaign; further, it does it in real-time. Fundamental models use information such as past election results, economic indicators, ideological indicators and biographical information about the candidates. They are remarkably accurate at predicting elections, even though we create the forecast with data that is available several months prior to the election. Yahoo! Games/polls are new interactive games that will harness the information of Yahoo! users to further refine our predictions.
Combined, our predictions stand out for several reasons. First, they are the most accurate prediction available, with the wealth of information we utilize. Second, they are going to be updating in real-time. Third, they are versatile covering many topics and displaying many different applicable predictions on the same events. Finally, they are going to be displayed in an easy to understand way with data visualizations.Q: How long has it taken you to perfect The Signal? In other words, how long has it been from concept to now?
A: I pitched The Signal to Yahoo! News during my first week at Yahoo! this summer. David Pennock and I began writing articles on the data about three months after I arrived at Yahoo! and we launched The Signal about five months after I arrived at Yahoo!. We have been refining and adding to it ever since then
Yet, in actuality, The Signal is an outgrowth of the work that David Pennock and I have been doing for years. The models and theories that form the basis of the project have been our life’s work.Q: Now that football season is over, do you think people will be addicted to Fantasy Politics just like they have been to Fantasy Football?
A: Yes. The game we are developing from the Predictalot platform is going to have some really exciting hooks. There will be two distinct levels one for casual users and one for hard core users. Both will allow people to gain some ownership in the election which we hope to lead to even more engagement in the campaigns. First, since our games are all tied to real-time action, users will be able to see their portfolios move in real-time, during debates, after major gaffes and scandals, and during Election Day. Second, there will be interesting contrasts that users will be able to debate about, like “Will Obama win Florida?” or “Will Obama win Florida and Ohio?” or “Will Obama win Florida if the unemployment rate is above 8 percent?” Third, our unique scoring structure will make it easy to play both head-to-head with your buddies, in small groups, or against a universal scoreboard. Whatever is most exciting to the user.
Since you mentioned Fantasy Sports, we are very excited that we have been able to converse regularly with the folks at Fantasy Sports while we build our Fantasy Politics game. What an amazing asset it is for us to get advice from the leaders in the industry. We’re working to see how we can integrate some of their expertise in our work moving forward.Q: Who do you think will win the Republican nomination, and further, who will be our next president?
A: As of February 7 at 3:47 PM ET Mitt Romney is 72.8 percent likely to be the Republican nominee and Barack Obama is 61.5 percent likely to win reelection. Further, you did not ask, but I think the Philadelphia Phillies are 15.5 percent likely to win the World Series, with the New York Yankees close behind at 12.8 percent.Q: What other events does the Yahoo! Predict team work on that Yahoos may not know about?
A: We are starting on the major political elections but we will be expanding rapidly into other events. We have already spoken about sports in several columns (and the previous question). We are adding economic indicators and financial indicators soon. And, to answer the most pertinent question, The Artist is 83.5 percent likely to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which I really enjoyed, so I recommend you see it before the awards show!Q: What inspires you to do your best work? Or, more generally, what inspires the team?
A: We have two intertwined goals: become a meaningful property for Yahoo! and utilize Yahoo! Signal for research.
First, Yahoo! Signal is an amazing way to showcase the work many talented people in Yahoo! Labs and Yahoo! News who are interested in bringing objective data analysis to our 700 million users. We have some of the top machine learning computer science PhDs in the world working on new backend algorithms for our Fantasy Politics. We have leading data mining computer scientists PhDs working on new ways to utilize social data. We have sociologist PhDs thinking about what goes viral and marketing, psychologist, and computer scientist PhDs thinking about design and how people understand probability. We have economist PhDs working on prediction models. The list goes on, but it is tied together with excellent Yahoo! News editors who help us communicate cutting edge research to the general Yahoo! audience.
And, it’s working! Our traffic over the first few months has been strong. Our real-time interest index, sentiment index, and predictions are just coming online now. We expect that that will not only drive readers, but engaged readers, who will come back often during major events.
Second, Yahoo! Signal is a functioning laboratory for Yahoo! Labs. It allows us to run field experiments on cutting edge polls and prediction games. These allow our users to not only engage themselves, but actually advance our academic work in these fields. Further, we are always looking for new tools to engage our users, new ways to get them to understand and test Yahoo!’s cutting edge work.