Visualizing Singapore's 2011 Elections

Visualizing Singapore's 2011 Elections

On Saturday, Singaporeans went to the polls for general elections, where they voted to keep the People's Action Party firmly in power, as widely predicted. But it was hardly an electoral pat-on-the-back for PAP, as opposition groups made their largest inroads in almost half a century.

What made the 2011 campaign so unpredictable, and so unique, according to election watchers, was the palpable feel of unrest in the air, as an estimated 600,000 people aged 21 to 34 cast their ballots for the first time. In a city-state rocked by soaring costs of living and immigration tensions, these youth have become highly critical of the current government. And like their counterparts in the Middle East, these young voters are not only restless for change, they are restless and digitally connected. Here's one TIME reporter's take:

"At a recent opposition rally, a whirring wall of i-Phones rose into the dusk sky, transmitting the scheduled political rally's voices and images to Facebook. As opposition candidates from the Workers' Party spoke from the dais about Singapore's rising cost of living, word about the rally was spreading in cyberspace, helping to swell the crowd until it filled a 3,800-seat sports stadium in an eastern suburb of the city. 'From day one of this campaign there were huge crowds at the opposition rallies,' says Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at Nanyang Technological University. 'That's largely due to social media.'"

With much of campaign 2011 unfolding on social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, the tagteam of JamiQ and Swarm decided to launch an experiment: Could they take a picture of this online chatter? By tracking hashtags and re-tweets, shared articles and personal opinions, would it be possible to help the Singaporean public understand salient political issues? Here is the result, a fascinating slipstream of election memes visualized in real-time:

[Click to enter full-screen interactive mode]

The graphic is made up of two main parts: Today's Key Terms (center) and Most Shared Content (right), with the lines between key terms and shared content showing the correlation between the two. Trending topics are found in the top links, and the lines trailing leftwards from key terms show the day-by-day history of trends.

"The goal of the project is to help the public follow the elections by separating signals from noise by trending topics being discussed and showcasing the top articles being shared," says project leader Yin Shanyang of Swarm. "To do that, we looked at news articles, blog posts, and Twitter data to identify the top mentioned keywords, and the most-shared content."

Not surprisingly, People's Action Party (PAP) shows up as the top mentioned keyword, with the leading opposition group, the Worker's Party (WP) close behind.

Though by today, May 9th, Singaporeans have obviously moved on to other subjects — like Kate Spade — on May 6th, the day before the election, we saw "job," "cost," and "future" topping the keyword list.

These memes reflect the reality on the ground in Singapore, where over the past several years, the costs of living in have climbed higher and higher, meaning pricier housing, schooling, transportation, and food. Immigration has also turned into a sore point, as the government has been welcoming foreign workers to take both high-paying jobs in private banks, hedge funds, and oil firms and lower-paying jobs in retail and construction. According to the investment bank Credit Suisse, Singapore's population grew 18% between 2004 and 2008, largely on the strength of these newcomers. Of the 769,000 new jobs created during that time, immigrants have filled some 61%.

This new labor has done wonders for Singapore's GDP, but the flipside has been monetary inflation and a growing sense of social malaise; native Singaporeans say they are now vying for jobs in a climate of devalued currency and seeing their public services — buses, subways, roads, and health clinics — congested and overcrowded. If the generation that swept PAP into power has largely kept mum over these concerns, this year, as their children took to the polls, many of the old guard were understandably nervous.

Still, the famously oppressive government took a leap and decided to loosen its grip on political discourse. According to the New York Times, changes were made to the Constitution and election bylaws, making campaigning permitted throughout cyberspace for the first time — "in podcasts, videos, blogs, instant messaging, photo-sharing platforms like Flickr, social networking sites and electronic media applications like those on cellphones."

It was largely the opposition parties that capitalized on this new communication forum, creating their own websites, Twitter accounts, and Google-maps of campaign events. They used social media to blast invitations to rallies, and live-blogged and tweeted the rallies to build a virtual audience alongside the real one.

It might seem like a let down, then, that for all this buzz, the People's Action Party will still control 81 seats in parliament next to the opposition's mere six. On the other hand six seats is still more than they've controlled since Singapore's independence in 1965. What's more, the wins alone don't reflect the true presence of opposition: In 2006, only about half of the parliamentary seats were contested (by default, uncontested seats go to PAP). This year opposition party candidates challenged an impressive 82 out of 87 seats.

We're not suggesting that Twitter causes revolutions — people do. But as we've seen before, in the hands of the politically verklempt, social media sure has way of fueling them. If this visualization is any clue, for young Singaporeans, change could well be in the air...Air replete with the tweets and texts of democracy's colorful, and critical, expression.

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