ObViz, bringing clarity to controversial topics
A tool developed in the artificial intelligence laboratory summarises diverse opinions found on the internet. An open arms trade, homosexual rights, government surveillance or the death penalty: ObViz analyses what is written on the topic and then clearly lays out the arguments from different sources.
“I lost some of my savings in the 2008 financial crisis,” said Claudiu Musat, a postdoctoral student at the artificial intelligence laboratory. “I was then surprised to see that several economists had predicted it. Although I thought I had read everything, I hadn’t seen their articles.”
This unfortunate experience sparked the researcher’s interest in computerised opinion research. Seven years on, he has come up with ObViz – opinion-based visualisation – a tool for researching and summarising controversies. Several versions of the tool will soon be available: a browser extension, a participatory website and a widget offered to content publishers.
“It is difficult to find rational debates on the internet when it comes to topics like vaccination and animal testing, because the discussions are dominated by activists,” said Musat. This is where the semi-automated analysis done by ObViz comes in, helping whoever wants to form an opinion. ObViz analyses texts from multiple sources, determines the topics, and searches for arguments on both sides of the issue. It then summarises them in a structured way.
“Structuring the debate also means learning something about it. Otherwise, in the jungle of arguments, it’s usually the first one that makes the biggest impression,” said Musat. On the ObViz website, a little character named ObVee serves as the mascot, presenting both sides of various issues along with a summary that allows the user to clearly grasp the key points in a debate.
For now, ObViz only exists in the form of a participatory website called ObVee. “It presents analyses of articles that users can approve or correct. They can decide if an argument is not relevant or label it either for or against,” said Musat. Thanks to this human feedback, the website learns how to detect certain sentence structures. This allows it in turn to improve the accuracy of its analyses, which are for now provided only in English.
Financing for the project is planned through crowdfunding. Supporters will receive a browser extension, which they’ll be able to use on any web page. The analysis tool will detect the various arguments in the text on the page and classify them as either for or against the issue in question.
Musat has also gotten in touch with a number of publishers, which means his innovation could soon find its way to news websites. If so, ObVee could be used to suggest other articles on either side of the same topic. By referring readers to archived articles, ObViz will extend their shelf life.
On partner websites, the arguments and the summary of opinions will help readers fully grasp the content, and this certainly represents added value for the publishers. "We carried out two studies that clearly showed that our interface enhances user participation by 50%," says Musat. Beyond a summarised presentation of the news, ObVee will interact with users, encouraging them to give their opinion or to use the arguments in their comments on social media. Once active in the debate, the reader is more likely to return to the website.
Whom to trust?
ObViz also resolves a common problem on the web: the credibility of sources. The argument-detection process highlights a user’s or website’s sources, which are an indication of credibility. The same is true on the participatory website where, by virtue of their comments, users construct for themselves a profile showing their areas of knowledge.