Sunday, 29 November 2015


Is a rethink needed on data access arrangements?

Wed, 25 Apr 2012

From today’s Independent:

“Government departments are breaking secrecy rules governing the handling of confidential statistics on average once every three months, the new head of the UK Statistics Authority has warned.”

Ministers currently get access to official statistics 24 hours before they are made public, with the government line being that such early access is necessary to allow ministers to respond appropriately when questions.

But Andrew Dilnot, who replaced Michael Scholar as Statistics Authority chairman this month, reckons that once every three months such statistics manage to find their way into the hands of unauthorised persons. This, he said, could facilitate insider trading, especially when it involves data that is market-sensitive.

Like his predecessor, Dilnot says he will push for a reduction in the amount of pre-release access that ministers get, which is something both the Conservative and Liberal Democrats wanted to see – before they were elected to government, that is.

Hat-tip: @JaneFrostMRS

Gulf-wide people meter panel mooted

Tue, 21 Feb 2012

Plans are afoot to introduce a Gulf-wide system that uses people-meters to measure TV audiences in the region, according to local reports.

The UAE is currently the only country to use people meters to count television audiences – that is until Saudi Arabia’s system gets up and running in the next 12 to 18 months – but a consultant working on the Saudi project says that a region-wide scheme is in the offing.

Thomas Kuruvilla, managing director of consultancy Arthur D. Little Middle East, told The National that “preliminary” talks about a system covering all Gulf Cooperation Council countries – including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman – have already taken place.

He said: “There is a clear appreciation that we need to have GCC-wide TV audience measurement. There is a willingness and ambition to move towards that.” It’s hoped the development of such a system would boost the region’s advertising industry, which is reported to be worth $4bn.

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Oprah risks the wrath of Nielsen

Tue, 14 Feb 2012

Oh dear, Oprah Winfrey. The doyenne of American daytime TV recently tweeted her nine million followers urging them to watch her new show Oprah’s Next Chapter – “especially if they have a Nielsen box”. Winfrey later took down the offending tweet, at the request of the TV audience measurement firm, saying that she “intended no harm”.

But the ratings firm has already started examining the situation, as it takes seriously any attempt to influence panel homes to change their viewing habits. The firm said: “In accordance with our policies and procedures, Nielsen is reviewing this incident with our clients, and we may withhold, breakout and/or make a note in the ratings.”

Digging deep to win

Fri, 10 Feb 2012

This week’s Economist has a fascinating article on the secretive work of the analysis team within the Obama 2012 re-election campaign.

Headed by chief scientist Rayid Ghani, the former analytics research lead at Accenture Labs, the paper says that the team will attempt to mine a “torrent” of data – commercially available consumer data, voter rolls and information gleaned from door-to-door canvassing and phone banks.

The aim of all that is to “predict voting patterns, allowing the Obama campaign to target its spending more accurately and cost-effectively”.

Click here to read the article in full.

Jana’s Eagle one of '50 people who will change the world'

Wed, 1 Feb 2012

Nathan Eagle, founder and CEO of mobile phone crowdsourcing company Jana, is nominated on Wired magazine’s Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world.

Each nominee was selected by a “top achiever in their field”, who were tasked with nominating “one fresh, exciting thinker who is influencing them, someone whose ideas or experience they feel are transformative.”

In Eagle’s case this was Esther Dyson, an investor and entrepreneur focused on breakthrough innovation across a number of diverse fields. She said: “Nathan Eagle is not just smart; he applies his intelligence to the real world, with both vision and a business model.”

Jana, which was founded as TxtEagle in 2009, recruits people to perform ‘microtasks’ by sending information by text message; incentivising them to participate by using free mobile airtime as a reward. As well as carrying out consumer surveys and advertising audits, the approach has been used to monitor hospital blood supplies and to populate GPS systems.

Dyson added: “His company, Jana, employs thousands and, ultimately, he employs millions of people in emerging markets as market researchers.”

You can read more about Eagle and his company in an interview we ran last year, and check out the full Wired list here.

Guest post by Bronwen Morgan

Is Amazon on the verge of offering analytics?

Thu, 5 Jan 2012

Online retailer Amazon could be about to embark on a venture that will see it offer data analytics services to businesses, according to reports.

The New York Times’ Bits blog quotes “specialists in data science” who say that Amazon has become increasingly interested in the business models of companies that create and sell pattern-finding algorithms for large data sets.

And Amazon already stores vast amounts of data for companies through its web services business, so…

“Rumour and speculation” was Amazon’s response to the blog, but Forrester Research VP Kyle McNabb said: “Amazon has the expertise and the computing power to do something like this. They could rent an analytics engine to people on a quarterly basis, possibly offer to match your data to other large data sets and find something useful.”

When reputation management goes wrong

Thu, 8 Dec 2011

Chime’s PR agency Bell Pottinger has been getting unwanted attention this week for – among other things – rewriting Wikipedia entries about its clients in the name of “reputation management”.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has accused Bell Pottinger of “ethical blindness” and the site has suspended ten accounts linked to the firm.

One of the pages it tinkered with was that of Naked Eye Research – its sister company in the Chime group.

Wikipedia’s records reveal that the page for the ethnographic research agency was created in February and quickly flagged by another user as being overly promotional and full of irrelevant details. That user eventually removed much of the fluff.

But in May a user calling themselves Biggleswiki reinstated most of the deleted material and made more changes, adding a logo, details about Chime, a biography of Naked Eye’s founder Nick Leon and a list of the agency’s clients.

The changes leave Naked Eye with a rather flattering Wikipedia entry, and an unusually thorough one for such a small company.

The page also says that the agency “has been credited with introducing the co-discovery method to video ethnography” – a claim supported by a link to an Esomar conference paper written by Nick Leon himself (and only available on a paid-for basis) and a Research-Live article which, for the record, states no such thing.

Bell Pottinger, which works closely with Chime’s research division and also represents TNS, has since admitted that Biggleswiki is one of the accounts its team uses, even though the profile (now blocked) described the user as an employee of an engineering company and made no mention of the PR firm.

Neither Bell Pottinger nor Naked Eye had responded to calls seeking comment at the time of publication.

Of course, anyone can edit Wikipedia at the click of a button – that’s the point of it. And Bell Pottinger didn’t break any rules – because Wikipedia doesn’t really have any rules (apart from ‘ignore all rules’). But it did break some very clear guidelines. The principle that Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view is “absolute and non-negotiable”, the site says.

Representatives and employees of organisations are “very strongly discouraged” (their emphasis) in Wikipedia’s guidelines from creating or altering entries if there might be a conflict of interest. Editing in the interests of public relations – aside from obvious corrections – is “particularly frowned upon”. Bold type and frowning is pretty much as strict as Wikipedia gets.

The changes made to Naked Eye’s page are relatively innocuous in comparison to some of the other Wikipedia edits that Bell Pottinger is accused of – including removing references on clients’ pages to drug convictions and other allegations.

Still, we can’t help but wonder how many other companies have succumbed to temptation and tweaked their Wikipedia entries to correct perceived inaccuracies or omissions, or to make them more complimentary. It certainly doesn’t require the help of a PR company – boasting that you can fix negative Wikipedia entries (as Bell Pottinger bosses were taped saying) is a bit like boasting that you can count up to three. Whether or not it saves you or your clients from bad publicity is, as we’ve seen in the last few days, a different matter.

To be fair, Wikipedia’s guidelines do point out that attempts to improperly influence the site are “routinely exposed and can be reported adversely in the media”, leading sometimes to “extreme” embarrassment. Nobody can say they weren’t warned.

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Ad spend forecasts are going down, down, down

Tue, 6 Dec 2011

Researchers often look at ad spend predictions as a rough guide to how their industry might fare. In which case, the latest revised forecasts from WPP’s GroupM, Interpublic’s Magna Global and Publicis’ ZenithOptimedia don’t bring much cheer.

Each predicts that global ad spending will grow by various amounts next year but the growth figures themselves have been scaled back.

For GroupM, spend will now be up 6.4% to $522bn, down from the 6.8% forecast in July.

Magna Global, meanwhile, expects growth of 5%, revised down from 6.5%, to $449bn.

And finally, ZenithOptimedia predicts ad spend will rise by 4.7% to $486bn, down from the 5.3% rate anticipated in October.

A shower-fresh approach to monitoring behaviour

Wed, 23 Nov 2011

My favourite parts of the older James Bond films (the ones prior to the Jason Bourne-influenced re-imagining) were the bits where MI6’s resident boffin Q would demonstrate his latest invention – typically a high-tech piece of kit cunningly disguised as a harmless, everyday object, like a pen or a desk lamp.

Unilever’s R&D department takes a similar approach when it comes to inventing devices to understand consumer behaviour.

In March this year, we heard the tale of Unilever’s spy toothbrush, which used in-built accelerometers to record when and for how long people in China would clean their teeth. This week the company unveiled the “shower sensor”.

Behavioural scientist Hilde Hendrickx told the BBC how Unilever designed a piece of kit to pick up on the noise water makes when running through a pipe and to detect changes in water temperature so as to monitor people’s shower habits without the need for surveys.

As with the toothbrush experiment, Unilever was looking to get round the unreliability of self-reporting and avoid the need for in-person monitoring. “People would not take too kindly to someone standing next to them with a clipboard” while in the shower, said Hendrickx.

The company logged 2,600 showers by 100 families over a 10-day period and found that the average shower lasted eight minutes – longer than previously assumed.

Click here to read the article in full.

What's all this then?

Fri, 11 Nov 2011

Police in Cleveland, in the northeast of England, are under fire from the chairman of the local Police Federation for spending over £25,000 for a year-long project measuring confidence in the force among residents.

Steve Matthews, chairman of the Cleveland branch of the Police Federation has criticised the expenditure as “unnecessary” as the force wrestles with budget cuts of £17m over the next two years.

Matthews said: “In these times of austerity, this does seem a little bit unnecessary. There are other ways of measuring police confidence without having to spend this sort of money on random calls to the public.”

The Northern Echo reports that Cleveland Police hired SPA Future Thinking to run the survey. It says there is already a callback system in police which re-contacts victims of crime or people who have called the police to find out if they were satisfied with the response they received.

The police stand by the survey, saying it has provided them with “a great deal of valuable information”. I guess the question is, how valuable? Is the information something you can put a price on? Or, as our cover story last month put it, what’s it worth?

Google looking to make research 'faster, more accurate, more affordable'

Mon, 31 Oct 2011

Researchers have long mused on the potential of Google as a market research provider, in part fearing the day it decides to get serious about surveys. One-fifth of respondents in a recent study by Cambiar predicted that Google or Facebook would be leading the industry by 2020. Now it seems Google is testing the water.

The Nieman Journalism Lab draws our attention to a new concept Google is toying with. “Google appears to be experimenting with a new paywall-esque content roadblock for publishers,” writes Justin Ellis. He calls it a ‘survey wall’ because “instead of dollars the system asks readers a question before they can move on to continue reading what they like”.

Google says it’s just one of many experiments it runs with publishers to test new ways of engaging with readers or presenting content.

But clicking “Learn more” on one of the question tabs takes you to a statement that reads:

“Your opinions matter. Answering the quick question here gives you near instant access to the page you want for free. You don’t have to pull out your wallet or sign in, companies gain insight into what people think, and the publisher earns money as site visitors provide answers. Everyone wins.

“It’s all part of a new product under development to make market research faster, more accurate and more affordable.”

Interested parties can sign up to be a trial partner and run their own questions here. If any readers take Google up on its offer, do let us know what you find out.

(Hat tip to @kantarmedia_uk, whose retweet brought the Nieman post to our attention.)

The greatest movie ever qualitatively researched

Mon, 17 Oct 2011

Morgan Spurlock’s latest film has a unique premise: it’s a film about product placement, funded completely by product placement. It’s called The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, or to give it its full title, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

It’s what you might call a meta-movie: a ‘making of’ documentary about itself. And it might never have been made without market research.

After pitching his idea to lots of friendly marketing people, none of whom called him back, Spurlock decided he needed to pin down his ‘brand personality’ in order to identify possible backers and sell his idea to them. So he approached Olson Zaltman Associates in the US, who tackled the problem using their ZMET methodology, in which respondents collect images to reflect their thoughts and feelings and discuss them with a researcher (jump to 12:14 in the video of his TED talk above for that part).

In Spurlock’s own words, “There was a whole lot of crazy going on in there.” Lindsay Zaltman offers a slightly more nuanced analysis, concluding that Spurlock’s brand personality is a rare combination of ‘mindful’ and ‘playful’ – a bit like Apple, Wii and Mini. Armed with this insight Spurlock managed to get enough brands on board to get the film made.

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Pollsters happy after calling Ontario election

Fri, 7 Oct 2011

Sighs of relief, no doubt, in the offices of polling firms in Canada today after the Liberals won the provincial election in Ontario – as forecast by at least five firms.

While the campaign rumbled on, pollsters went to town on those they saw as producing misleading polls as well as criticising the media for painting an unclear picture of the political situation.

Ipsos Reid executives led the attacks, and the firm’s methodology was vindicated as, according to, the firm was one of five pollsters that correctly predicted a Liberal victory, alongside Nanos Research, EKOS, Forum Research and Angus Reid.

TV ratings 101

Fri, 16 Sep 2011

Sesame Street may have helped teach us how to count, but rarely has the educational power of puppetry been harnessed to deal with concepts like sampling, representativeness and time-shifted average commercial minutes.

We stumbled across this rather nice video today, made for ESPN by creative agency Jess3, which does exactly that.


Online reviews make us all clients of rubbish research

Thu, 1 Sep 2011

Not everyone’s happy about the culture of customer feedback that the internet has created.

In Wired a few weeks back, Chris Colin wrote about the culture of reviews and whether it’s spoiling the web for everyone.

“The internet-begotten abundance of absolutely everything has given rise to a parallel universe of stars, rankings, most-recommended lists, and other valuations designed to help us sort the wheat from all the chaff we’re drowning in,” writes Colin.

But whatever happened to discovering things for ourselves? Colin fears that this culture of critique will “curtail serendipity, adventure, and idiotic floundering”, and deny us of the act of choosing independently, which is “a fundamental expression of the self”.

Suddenly it’s as if the whole of the population, on the cusp of vital decisions like whether it’s wise to invest in the second series of Gossip Girl when you still haven’t finished watching Grey’s Anatomy, have become clients of really bad market research. The tabulation is sloppy, the sample is all over the place, the results are inconclusive, and no one really understands you well enough to offer any useful insight. You’re left in a funk of indecision.

Many a time I have found myself browsing an online store, salivating over a CD or book that I might buy, only to read the (inevitably) mixed customer reviews, and feeling my excitement give way to nagging doubt.

In fact, the online purchases I enjoy most are the ones I make after coming home late from the pub – ignoring how other customers feel about it and ordering whatever I’m excited about at that particular moment, never mind how frivolous or embarrasing. This also adds a brief sense of surprise when a package lands on your doorstep that you only dimly remember ordering, containing a product that the well-meaning reviewers of Amazon could never have reached a consensus on.

I’m not suggesting that people should inebriate themselves before making important business decisions, but I do think that the way we use online reviews can tell us something about how clients feel when faced with research that doesn’t properly answer their questions. Information that hasn’t been filtered, structured and thought through can be worse than no information at all.


Presidential candidate complains after Fox 'ignores' online polls

Thu, 1 Sep 2011

There is always controversy surrounding polls in US presidential elections, but this time round it has started early, with Californian Republican Fred Karger apparently excluded from a Fox News debate on the grounds that the broadcaster does not recognise the results of online polls.

For a presidential candidate to qualify for the debate, Fox News says – via Karger – that they must have garnered an average of at least 1% in five national polls leading up to the event, as well as officially registering as a candidate and meeting all constitutional requirements.

Karger claims that he achieved the necessary poll results, but Fox told him that because some of the research is based on online polling by Harris Interactive and Zogby, his claim is not valid.

Karger – the first openly gay presidential candidate – alleges that Fox “has changed its criteria just to keep me out”. In a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, he cites Fox News stories that are themselves based on the results of online polls – including one of the ‘invalid’ Zogby polls that Karger cited in support of his claim to deserve a place at the debate.

Social media information 'wrong and rather silly'

Wed, 17 Aug 2011

Tools of democracy they may be, but Twitter and the Blackberry Messenger service were also used by the Metropolitan Police to gather intelligence on planned riots in London last week and make sure officers were on the scene ahead of troublemakers.

The BBC reports that Assistant Met Commissioner Lynne Owens told a committee of MPs that the police gathered intelligence about the possible targeting of Oxford Street, the Westfield shopping centres and the Olympic site.

Owens said that the force had to sift through an “overwhelming amount” of data to find information. Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin told MPs that he had considered asking authorities to switch off the social networks altogether. He added that the police were receiving pieces of new information every second about trouble in 22 of London’s 32 boroughs, but much of the data from social media was “obviously wrong and rather silly”. We’d be interested to hear if brands engaged in social media monitoring feel the same.

Ex-NetRatings boss and the bomb collar scare

Tue, 16 Aug 2011

A couple of weeks ago, you may recall, there was a harrowing story about an 18-year-old woman from Sydney who, in a suspected extortion attempt at her home, had what was thought to be a bomb strapped to her neck. The bomb was later revealed to be a fake.

Until now it had escaped our notice that the woman, Madeleine Pulver, is the daughter of William Pulver – the former president and CEO of online market research agency NetRatings. He was president of the company from 1999 until July 2007, when Nielsen bought out the company (having previously been a majority shareholder).

Pulver is now CEO of Appen Butler Hill, a voice recognition software company. The Herald Sun has a profile.

Today it was reported that a 50-year-old suspect, Paul ‘Doug’ Peters, has been arrested in the USA in connection with the attack. Australian authorities are seeking extradition. Read the BBC’s report here.

Riots and research: asking awkward questions

Thu, 11 Aug 2011

As England breathes a sigh of relief following a night of relative calm, social researchers can begin to dissect the riots that have shaken the country’s towns and cities in the last few days.

There’s plenty for researchers to get their teeth into. Who? Why? Why now? Why here? And how do we stop it happening again?

But based on some of the comments we’ve heard from pundits and politicians in recent days, social researchers have reason to be concerned about whether such questions will be welcomed.

Prime Minister David Cameron described the riots as “criminality pure and simple”, while Home Secretary Theresa May labelled them “sheer criminality”. The only explanation Cameron offers is a “lack of responsibility” – anything more nuanced than that would start to sound too much like an excuse.

“When politicians want to sound tough, there’s no room for explanations – they sound much too much like excuses”

In a saddening exchange between Labour’s Harriet Harman and Conservative education secretary Michael Gove on the BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday, Harman suggested there might be a link between the riots and government policy. Instead of just telling her she was wrong, Gove accused Harman of not condemning the violence clearly enough.

We seem to be seeing the emergence of a new variation on Godwin’s Law: the longer a discussion goes on, the probability of one party accusing the other of not condemning the violence strongly enough approaches 100%.

The government aren’t the only ones who feel this is not a time for questions. Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie appeared on the same programme, and when asked whether we should try to understand the rioters, his answer was no.

These anti-explainers clearly believe they are tapping into a public mood. But why, in a time like this, does the prevailing mood encourage us not to ask questions? Why does an attempt to understand crime have to be a sign of weakness?

In a blog post published on Monday, the Guardian’s Dave Hill examined this disdain for attempts to diagnose events. “Condemnation on its own is far too easy,” writes Hill. “The other problem with condemnation unadorned is that it’s a dead end. You condemn. Then what? You have to look for some solutions.”

Ben Page of Ipsos Mori has not, we are relieved to say, given up trying to make sense of events. In an interview for Reuters yesterday, Page said it’s “too soon to say” that the riots are linked to the current government’s spending cuts. “It’s a much more deep-seated problem plus a spark that set it off,” he said.

Page, who was a historian before he was a pollster, looks back as far as the 1960s and 1980s for the roots of this week’s unrest, arguing that economic and social liberalism have resulted in “a sort of ‘sod you’ mentality”, and a sense among some people at the bottom of the pile that they have nothing to lose.

He points to the widening gulf (in terms of wealth and in terms of interaction) between people at the top and bottom of society – not as a result of recent events or of the actions of any particular government, but as a longer-term trend. He also highlighted Ipsos polling suggesting that the need for parents to take more responsibility for their kids is “one of the few things everybody in this country agrees on”.

Page doesn’t claim to have all the answers – he’s very clear that these things will take time to understand properly. But at least he’s thinking about it.

So far the riots have had the effect of reinforcing what we all already believed about the world. Everyone, from the most authoritarian of right-wingers to the most bleeding-hearted of liberals, feels a sense of ‘I told you so.’ Without proper study of what really went wrong, this sort of polarisation is unlikely to result in a helpful debate.

If this kind of crime really was “pure and simple”, we would have worked out how to stop it ages ago. Unfortunately it’s complicated and messy. That’s why we have social researchers: to ask questions and seek explanations. The events of the last few days make their work much more important – not less.

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ComScore data not so sweet for BlackBerry

Fri, 29 Jul 2011

The Independent reports on data squabbles between BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) and ComScore over the latest figures for smartphone use in the UK.

ComScore reckons BlackBerry had some 3.5 million subscribers in May, compared to 5.5 million iPhone owners and 5.4 million Android-powered devices.

But RIM says those numbers are wrong and “by a wide margin”, saying its UK subscriber base was just under 7 million at the end of May.

ComScore says the disparity is down to the fact that its figures relate to primary handsets only – so people who own two phones will only have their primary phone counted.

BlackBerry, however, is not sold on this argument. Read the full story here.


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