The University of Southampton

Future Leaders Fellow utilises machine learning to address polarisation in politics

Published: 20 September 2019
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The Rebooting Democracy project will fuse politics with machine learning.

Research software engineers will use machine learning to explore polarisation and disengagement with politics as part of a new Future Leaders Fellowship at the University of Southampton.

The Rebooting Democracy project with Dr Matt Ryan is one of two new fellowships awarded to the Russell Group University by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) scheme.

Matt, a Lecturer in Governance and Public Policy, will work across three phases with the Southampton Research Software Group on the £1.197 million programme.

“Democracy is in trouble,” he explains. “Most people agree that democracy is a good thing, but there are issues with how it works in practice including declining trust in government and political parties, distorted digital communications, and rising polarisation and extremism in politics.”

Phase one will involve combining data from surveys, crowdsourcing and social media to determine conditions in the past that have led to increases in positive democratic behaviours.

The Research Software Group will then build a dashboard where social media data and machine learning are used to create an early warning system to tell governments and civil society groups what people are saying about various issues, or when issues are bubbling under that they should consult on.

For its third phase, the project will run trials using the information in the dashboard, working with partners such as Southampton City Council, Involve, and the World Bank, to make recommendations on what and how bodies should engage with the population.

“We have huge problems with democracy because people are polarising and the compromise that is essential to politics is becoming harder to reach,” Matt says. “How can we engage people in the right ways? How can we avoid violence, hate speech and so on?

“Brexit is a symptom of this – the discourse it’s created is much more polarised than before. There are many other examples in everyday life – issues such as climate change or intergenerational fairness create polarisation.”

Rebooting Democracy will recruit two post-doctoral researchers to advance the programme.

Professor Simon Hettrick, Co-Director of the Southampton Research Software Group, adds, “We are really excited about working with Matt on this important and highly topical project. Combining Matt’s expertise with our robust software engineering will produce a tool that allows vital insight into democratic processes.”

In Southampton’s second new Future Leaders Fellowship, Dr Christina Vanderwel will simulate wind patterns around buildings to assess their impact on the air quality of cities.

The project, which has been awarded £943,000, will print 3D scale models of suburban and urban landscapes, then inject dye into a water tunnel to observe how pollution spreads. The research will inform computer models that are used to determine the potential of buildings creating pollution hotspots.

The two fellowships are among around 70 to be awarded across the country. Earlier this year, Dr Sarah Lewthwaite won a Future Leaders Fellowship in the scheme’s first round for her research into digital accessibility education.

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