'Capturing and exploring data created by online political gambling markets'

Dr Matthew Wall, a Lecturer in the Department of Political and Cultural Studies at Swansea University, is the Principle Investigator on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project – worth £76,001 – along with his Co-Investigators (Dr Stephen Lindsay – Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Swansea University and Dr Rory Costello – Lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick).

This 15 month project entitled ‘What are the odds?  Capturing and exploring data created by online political gambling markets’ builds on the intuition that the odds offered on gambling markets inform us about participants’ perception of the likelihood of possible outcomes for a given event.  ‘Long’ odds, which offer a high return, tend to be offered on (perceived) unlikely outcomes, while ‘short’ odds, which only offer a very small return, indicate that an outcome is considered likely.  Furthermore, odds on offer very over time as new information becomes available.  ‘What are the odds?’  leverages the fact that most contemporary online gambling websites offer odds on political outcomes.  Because these odds are published online, it is possible to gather them automatically, and to compile records of how the markets fluctuate over time.  The project will gather and analyse gambling market data concerning elections and referendums, the key means by which citizens influence policy in representative democracies. 

From an academic viewpoint, online political gambling markets provide unique data about the shifts that take place during election campaigns.  Such shifts are currently measured via polling data – however, polls are highly expensive, tend to be conducted at irregular intervals, and polling houses differ in sampling and weighting methodologies.  Online gambling markets provide free, minute-by-minute snapshots of outcome likelihoods during a campaign that are all generated by the same mechanism.  Online gambling markets are also often available for individual candidates within their respective constituencies – making them a rich new resource for scholars. 

However, gathering and organising such data is not straightforward, especially given the number of sites offering political betting markets – each site has a specific format and features, which must be taken into account.  Furthermore these are ‘big’ – in terms of volume (for instance, the UK general election dataset size is estimated at 9.5 GB) and velocity (the speed at which markets can react to external events).  Storing and analysing such data requires bespoke tools and techniques.  For this reason, ‘What are the odds?’ is a collaboration between political scientists and computer scientists, whose key goal is to allow both the research team and other researchers to capture and analyse the data created by online political gambling markets.  This will be done by creating a bespoke project website with a ‘research’ face containing the open-source tools, techniques and data generated by the project. 

‘What are the odds?’ will facilitate research activity that is inherently interdisciplinary – combining political science interests (psephology, public opinion analysis and electoral forecasting) with computer science concerns (database management, algorithm development, and data visualisation).  

A phase one pilot project entitled ‘Electoral forecasting using online gambling data’ – in 2013 – received £2,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded Bridging the Gaps Programme at Swansea University.  This funding enabled Drs. Wall and Lindsay to employ Robert Rokosz (a Computer Science student at Swansea University) to develop and test an algorithm for scraping and analysing the data created by online political gambling markets.