Microsoft’s prediction engine thinks Scotland will stick with the UK

Crystal ball-gazing, Scottish highlands style.
Crystal ball-gazing, Scottish highlands style.
Image: Max Nisen
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Microsoft’s prediction team has moved beyond a successful World Cup and a foray into American football to turn its attention to politics in the United Kingdom, where Scotland will not vote to become independent today, if the team’s first attempt at a UK-specific prediction is correct.

The company’s Bing prediction engine locked in its final estimate yesterday:

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According to a company blog post, this was a somewhat more difficult data-analysis problem than previous efforts. Predictions of World Cup match outcomes, for example, have years of data from both sides to add to the analysis.

This is a one-off event that has no real precedent, so the prediction model had to rely more heavily on social media sentiment and search query patterns to make its call. But while internet searches or opinions posted by fans aren’t terribly useful in predicting a sports outcome, they can give hints about how undecided people might vote.

Here’s how Microsoft describes the process:

For the prediction, we start with the trends and sentiment determined from the web and social data, and we then adjust for biases and try to understand the true opinion expressed by a population most representing the actual voters themselves.

Algorithmically, we detect terms that are pro-independence and compare the aggregate sentiment against phrases which are pro-union to arrive at a prediction for whether the referendum will have a “yes” or “no” vote. Our sentiment detector also identifies neutral keywords which potentially capture the segment of undecided voters. Information is continually ingested, with the prediction updated regularly, to best capture the latest “yes” or “no” vote. This mainly involves determining which way a percentage of undecided voters are going at the last minute.

In the process, they scrounged up some other interesting insights, like the issues that Scottish people are most concerned about in relation to the referendum, based on their search activity. Per Microsoft:

  • CURRENCY: what will happen to the currency in Scotland if it does become independent?
  • GEO-POLITICAL: can the UK veto an independent Scotland EU membership
  • NATIONALITY/IDENTITY: will Scottish people lose their British nationality after independence
  • BANKS: what happens to RBS if Scotland becomes independent?
  • OIL: who gets the oil with independence?
  • BBC: what would happen to the BBC in an independent Scotland?
  • Other interesting terms: what will happen to the open golf after Scottish independence? And: how will Scottish independence affect law firms?

The prediction is generally in line with the majority of polling data and betting firms, which have moved toward predicting a “No” vote. This might be the first of multiple attempts by Microsoft at predicting politics, as the company has previously hinted its interest in taking a look at America’s upcoming midterm elections.