With the presidential race in full swing, pollsters at Gallup call more than 3,000 registered voters every week, looking for insight into how America will vote this November.
Meanwhile, Adam Sharp, manager for government and news at Twitter, combs through a much larger pool of data: the 400 million messages posted to Twitter daily.
The microblogging website – where people share their thoughts, anecdotes, and links to articles – has teamed up with pollsters to launch Twindex (election.twitter.com). This daily political index measures attitudes toward Barack Obama and Mitt Romney based solely on how people discuss the candidates on Twitter.
It turns out that this massive, unfocused stream of information generally matches the rolling Gallup average. But Mr. Sharp says he's most interested in the times when Twindex disagrees with Gallup.
For example, he points to the military raid last year that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Both Twitter and Gallup saw the president's approval rating spike, but the Twitter numbers dropped off more quickly. Digging into the Twitter posts (or "tweets"), Sharp's team found more messages from that time on the economy than on all national security issues combined, including the raid on Mr. bin Laden, which at the time was the most tweeted-about moment in history. Sharp says this discrepancy shows the benefit of Twitter's style of polling: It better captures everyday conversation.
"When a pollster asks, 'Do you agree with the job the president is doing?' you may pause, reflect, remember the bin Laden raid, and say, 'Yeah, he got bin Laden. He's all right by me,' " says Sharp. "But that same person, when they're going into the coffee shop with a colleague the next day, they're not going to say for the 30th time, 'We got bin Laden. Isn't that great?' "
On the other hand, the president also saw a huge spike Aug. 4, his birthday. Such "happy" tweets about President Obama probably won't affect anyone's decision in November.
Still, Twitter's push into unsolicited polling – the kind that won't bother people at dinner time – shows the power of "big data." With sufficient sample sizes, researchers could uncover new insights and maybe answer questions that were never formally asked.
Sharp says Twitter doesn't want to replace traditional polling; the company wants to build on it.
For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.
[Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the September 10 issue of the Monitor weekly magazine.]