What are Ontario voters talking about? We asked AI

We speak with Erin Kelly, CEO of Advanced Symbolics, about the issues that will shape the federal election — and TVO.org's coverage
By Nathaniel Basen - Published on Aug 23, 2021
Advanced Symbolics is collecting internet-derived data to determine what matters most to Ontarians during this campaign. (Graham Hughes/CP)

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Canada’s 44th federal election, and its first of the COVID-19 era, is less than a month away. The campaign, now entering its second week, has generated plenty of online discussion on a wide variety of election and election-adjacent topics: abortion rights, the situation in Afghanistan, and out-of-control housing prices have all been lighting up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media in recent days.

But how can you determine which issues truly are the most important? Which ones will drive voters to the polls (or, this time around, to the post office)? Which ones should a media outlet — say, Ontario’s publicly funded current-affairs website — cover?

Of course, there’s no perfect answer. But looking at the online data is a good place to start. That’s why, in planning our election coverage, TVO.org turned to Advanced Symbolics, an Ottawa-based artificial-intelligence company, to see what its internet-derived data had to say about what matters most to Ontarians. From there, we landed on four broad themes — themes that we’ll cover, one by one, over the next four weeks leading up to the September 20 vote.

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Affordability. Climate change. Race and diversity. Our pandemic recovery. These are topics that unite, divide, and rile up voters throughout Ontario. And on Friday, TVO.org spoke with Erin Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Advanced Symbolics, about data gathering, voting patterns, and how the four themes shaping Ontario’s online discussions could also help shape the election.

TVO.org: I’ll just start with the big-picture question: What have you noticed about the mood or tone of the electorate in the early days of the campaign? 

Erin Kelly: It’s interesting. There was a bit of a uptick, of course, when the announcement was made for the election. But we compared the election this time around with the election in 2019, and we’re finding that participation is decreasing. So engagement on the parties and the leaders and the issues is going down, compared to 2019, for the Liberals and the Conservatives — but interest in the NDP has doubled. 

Agenda segment, April 3, 2020: Polly and the pandemic

TVO.org: Is that talk generally positive? Or is this a situation where any talk is good? 

Kelly: It’s really positive. 

TVO.org: The election was only called recently but had been expected for some time. When do you start tracking specifically for an election like this? 

Kelly: Because of the technology we use, because we’re doing samples on social media, we can actually go back in time to 2012. We don’t typically go that far back — we’ve actually done a few different analyses, looking at issues going back 18 months, 12 months, and six months to see what kind of patterns there are. We find that six months is obviously more relevant to seeing what the issues are now. Eighteen months? Things were a lot different back then. 

But it is interesting to see how the parties are tracking over time and what the trends are. We are looking at inflation, cost of living — those are the two biggest issues. We’ve got a bunch of other issues that we’re tracking: the housing market, climate crisis, fourth wave, Afghanistan, vaccine passports, voter fraud, etc.

We’re looking to see how the leaders and the parties, whether those issues boost them or take away from them — bring them down. We’ve seen a very clear pattern that the Liberals are brought down by things like inflation and cost of living; they’re very much blamed for that. They’re boosted by things like daycare, which is really working well for the prime minister. Mandatory vaccines are working well for him. Things that are bringing him down: the job market, inflation, and cost of living. 

Things that are bringing down the Conservatives: climate crisis, daycare. 

Things that are bringing down the NDP are inflation, mandatory vaccines (but that’s sort of Andrea Horwath). The things that are bringing them up, there’s a lot of interesting things like basic income, the climate crisis, CERB, and the job market. The Liberals are down on the job market, but the NDP is up, which is interesting. The Conservatives are polling low on job market as well; people aren’t very confident in their plan. 

TVO.org: We’re still quite early, obviously, but have you noticed any interesting shifts within the short time frame? 

Kelly: Yes, the Bloc Québécois is really going down. According to our horse-race history, it’s been pretty flat for both the Liberals and the Conservatives over time. Like I said, the NDP has gone up, and they’ve gone up at almost the same slope as the Bloc Québécois has gone down. That’s pretty interesting. But we’re not seeing the big lift for the NDP in Quebec, so I’m not sure if that’s probably just coincidence. Since August 11, and I don’t know what happened August 11, but we’ve seen the Bloc drop quite a bit since then. 

TVO.org: Let’s talk about the AI itself. How does it work, and what kind of conversations are you tracking?

Kelly: Similar to anytime you’re doing any kind of research, whether it be for vaccines or market research or what have you, the first thing you have to do is get a representative sample of the population. If you’re testing vaccines, for example, you do phase one in the trial, you get healthy people who are between, you know, 20 and 40, and you test it on them. It used to be that you didn’t have women in the first step, because women could be pregnant. But you get healthy adults. 

But then as you increase the testing and the trial, you bring in more and more people, until eventually you get to stage four testing of the vaccine. Then you have to have people who are diabetic, you have to have people who are 85 and older, and you have to have people from different ethnic groups, all sorts of illnesses. The more you have that mix of people, the more accurate the testing is. You have to have as varied of a sample as you can get, and you have to have people in the right proportion to how they appear in the population. 

It’s the same thing for market research. If you want to see how people feel about the election, you don’t want to just be asking white Bay Street bankers. You have to go across the country; you have to make sure you have the right sampling of Indigenous and different ethnic and religious groups and incomes and education and household formation and all of that in your sample. 

Now, the problem with traditional polling on social media is that they use keywords, and you don’t know who’s put out these keywords: you don’t know if it’s party workers; you don’t know if it’s journalists, because the internet or social media is over-represented in election discussions by journalists, and by party politicos. We want to make sure we’ve got normal Canadians, normal people from Ontario in our sample. The AI is an expert in making sure that sample is balanced. 

In research we call that valid sample the randomized controlled sample. It’s randomized in that people can’t elect to be in the sample; it’s the AI that chooses them. They don’t even know they’re in the sample. It’s controlled to make sure that we have the different ethnic groups and income levels and all that. From that, we analyze, applying different conversation models to that sample. We’re analyzing things like audience: Are you an activist? Are you an environmentalist? Are you an entrepreneur? We’re seeing huge participation from entrepreneurs in this election. They’re participating a lot in election talk. Are you a parent? 

One thing we noticed that’s new in these audience models is political technologists. I’ve never heard of a political technologist before. Political technologists are people who use technology to experience the election, if you will. So think of it as people who use apps and blogs and just technology for political purposes. It’s kind of interesting — it came out of Russia, you can imagine, and we tend to have a lot of them in Canada now. 

When we look at the audiences, we run what we call different classifiers, like emotion classifiers, on the population to see, is there anger? Is there joy? Is their anticipation? So it’s much more sophisticated than sentiment; we want to see how people are feeling about different issues. For vaccine passports, we have some people who feel disgust. You know, they’re very upset. A lot of angles on that.

We look to see how people feel about different issues. And then we look, of course, at the demographic profiles: Do the people come from Ontario? What part of the country do they come from? Are they rural, urban — their gender, their age, their income. But, of course, we’re not looking at individuals at all; it’s just graphs. 

For example, we’re seeing that a lot of people who are vaccine hesitant are actually wealthy people who make over $200,000 in household income. So that’s kind of interesting. You can see all sorts of interesting things: Who’s talking about the election? How are they feeling? And what is their demographic? 

TVO.org: Public-opinion pollsters are always tweaking and changing their models as time goes on. How has Advanced Symbolics changed what it does since the last election? 

Kelly: The main things are the audience model, the conversation modelling. So, before, it was more like natural language processing, that kind of thing. Now, we’ve really introduced a lot more sophistication to the conversation models. Whereas before we would say, you know, “People are really angry about climate change, and that’s why they’re voting Bloc Québécois,” for instance, now we can really go down and say, “Well, it’s not just the environmentalists.” We can tell when something is mainstream and when it’s not. For example, with entrepreneurs, we can actually say to you, “These are the issues that entrepreneurs are really concerned about. These are the issues that farmers are really concerned about. These are the issues that front-line workers are upset about.” And it’s not just concerned about it — we can get this detailed emotion. I’d say the emotion classifiers and the audience details are the two main changes in this election. 

TVO.org: In this election, we chose our most critical themes to follow with some help from you. They are affordability, climate change, race and diversity, and pandemic recovery. What has emerged from those themes that’s interesting or surprising?  

Kelly: First of all, people are really happy with the diversity of the candidates this time around, and a lot of people are remarking on it — that it’s nice to see candidates from different walks of life, if you will. So that’s really good, and it’s been really positive. We have to do a little bit more analysis on this, but we think that might be part of the reason why the NDP is getting much bigger engagement in this election. It’s not necessarily because of any of their policies; it could just be because of the diversity of their candidates — that seems to be giving them a nice big boost. And I think they’ve previously had that, maybe, but it’s being noticed, perhaps, more now.

So, on the diversity front, we still have to do a bit more analysis, but that seems to be what people are looking for: candidates who come from diverse backgrounds and candidates who talk about the importance of reconciliation. It definitely is being noticed, but I don’t know that there’s demand for policy, and I’m not sure what that is. So we still have to investigate that; I talked the team today about looking into that a little bit more.

Surprising things on the economy? I don’t know if it’s surprising, but what I’m seeing is that the Liberals are not getting a lot of kudos for the economy right now. I think they felt that, because they spent the last year giving out money, there would be a lot of goodwill on that right now, but the majority of their goodwill seems to be coming from the daycare policy. They’re actually taking a bit of a hit on cost of living and inflation. This might be a problem as people come back from summer vacation and see what the inflation numbers are looking like. 

And, by the same token, I would say I’m surprised — well maybe not surprised; that could be the wrong word — but the Tories don’t seem to be benefiting from these concerns in the economy. So even though leader Erin O’Toole was coming out with, “Hey, I’m going to build a million more houses” or “I’m going to do this,” it’s not resonating with people. I think part of the problem is the Tories talk a lot about tax breaks, and people find that complicated. “I’m going to give you tax breaks for daycare” is really not good messaging. It doesn’t compare well to “$10 daycare.” And so they’re failing to get any traction with the economic message, even though we’re seeing that people are deeply concerned about the economy. So that seems to be a big mess for the Tories, because they should have been able to capitalize on that. 

In fact, the NDP seems to be getting people’s interest in the economy more than the Conservatives are, which, you know, it’s a real miss for the Conservatives. 

TVO.org: How about climate change? 

Kelly: I’m not seeing any potential for the Conservatives on climate change. They just have too bad of a history on that. They’re about as bad on climate change as the Liberals are on cost of living right now. 

TVO.org: And then within the Liberals and the NDP, anything surprising there in the climate-crisis conversation?

Kelly: Well, I don’t know if it’s surprising, but the NDP scores higher than the Liberals on the climate crisis. Given that the Liberals have had six years to make a name for themselves on this, I would say they don’t see that. The Liberals are getting a small boost from climate crisis, even though it is something that is concerning for people. So they should be doing better on that than they are, I would say. 

TVO.org: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you think we should? 

Kelly: Well, basic income, which is coming up a little bit. Not a huge issue, but it’s there. The Conservatives or Liberals are pulling negatively on basic income, and the NDP seems to be getting a nice little boost on that topic. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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