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MIT grads’ technology gauges Olympic mood

Captures social media messages to measure fervor — yea or nay — and turn London’s Eye into a giant mood ring

Yellow lights gauge the mood of Olympic tweets on a recent night at the London Eye with the help of technology from Boston’s Sosolimited.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Yellow lights gauge the mood of Olympic tweets on a recent night at the London Eye with the help of technology from Boston’s Sosolimited.

Despite fretting over all the security and traffic restrictions in London, Britons appear to be warming up to hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics. A warm yellow glow, to be exact.

The yellow is the color of the lights on the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the River Thames that has been been programmed to reflect the mood of the country toward the Olympics, as measured by the tone of the social-media messages Twitter users are sending. The lights on the Eye change color depending on the tone detected in those messages, with yellow indicating a positive mood. On Monday night, for example, two thirds of the sphere glowed yellow.

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The Eye’s light show was engineered by a Boston company, Sosolimited, which devised a system that analyzes the content of Olympic-related tweets and calculates a collective national mood, based on the occurrence of words in the messages like “amaze,’’ “fear,” and “tears’’ that suggest emotion.

Sosolimited was engaged for the unusual job by Ignite, a brand-marketing firm hired by EDF Energy, the Eye’s sponsor and the official supplier of electricity for the Summer Games. The company was looking for a way to highlight the intensity of Olympic fever in Britain.

Sosolimited, which was founded by three graduates of the Massachusetts Institute­ of Technology, spent four months coming up with the technology behind Energy of the Nation, the Twitter-fueled light show taking over the city’s icon for the next two weeks.

“We look at every tweet coming out of the UK and scan them through emotional dictionaries looking for phrases,” said Sosolimited cofounder Justin Manor, who created software for what appears to be the world’s first social-media light show.

The company worked on the project with Mike Thelwall, an information science professor at the University of Wolverhampton, who devised an algorithm to detect emotions in tweets.

The London games have been called the first ‘Twitter Olympics,’ thanks to 10 million UK users.

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The system scans tweets that are signed with one of 30 Olympic-related hash tags, such as #London2012 and #Energy2012, to see if they contain words that are in a “sentiment” dictionary that Thelwall devised. Each tweet gets a positive or a negative rating. Words such as “win” and “gold” would indicate a positive view of the Olympics; words such as “lame” and “chaos” a negative view, which would be reflected in the lights on the Eye turning purple.

The algorithm adds up the sum of the sentence and gives it a score. If it’s somewhere in the middle it’s portrayed as green, for neutral.

Throughout the day, tweets flash on a Jumbotron at what’s dubbed Mission Control, located on a barge at the base of the Eye. Here emotions are charted and top-trending words flash on the screen leading up to the nightly show.

The numbers behind the math are pretty hefty. Sosolimited is analyzing some 80,000 messages a day, with the numbers expected to climb once the games begin.

Throughout the United Kingdom there are about 10 million Twitter users, and the London Games have been called the first “Twitter Olympics.”

At 9 p.m., Sosolimited’s “visual­ concert” begins. First the day’s mood is reflected on the Eye. If, for example, 63 percent of the tweets expressed positive feelings toward the Olympics, most of the Eye would be lit yellow, with the remainder of the circle being black.

For the rest of the show, where images like smiley or sad faces are flashed, a yellow hue remains.

“We are showing how the mood is changing throughout the day by compressing 24 hours of data and comments into 24 minutes of animation,” Manor said.

Sosolimited has an unusual history to go along with its unusual project. The three founders started out as a performance group before forming an art and technology studio that strives to present data in fresh ways. It has created avant-garde visual installations, from a “snow globe” in the window of HBO’s retail store in New York that is activated by passersby to a “remix” of the Obama-McCain 2008 presidential debates that made visual pastiches from the video, audio, and text of the candidates.

Sosolimited did a similar political performance for the 2010 prime minister debates in England, which won the company notice in London.

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