Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Five Stars: The Science Behind Social Media Reviews

Where’s your first stop when trying to find that perfect restaurant for a fancy date tonight? Or when researching a bed and breakfast for a weekend away with friends? Before blindly booking, most of us turn to social media. We scan online reviews, check out photos from events, and scrutinize travel sites to read about other people’s experiences. Negative reviews raise red flags for us, while positive ones reassure us that our choice is right. (Fake reviews are a whole ‘nother story...)

Here, I’ve analyzed social media reviews to quantify how each platform facilitates a different type of conversation. Reviewers liked to comment on everything and the kitchen-sink, however by focusing in on Yelp, Instagram and TripAdvisor reviews, I’m able to see some trends across social media. The top three categories I took a look at were:

  1. Product
  2. Operations
  3. Food


How do you know whether the place that’s just opened across the street is a good one? You go to Yelp and check them out! Product reviews were 1.3x higher on Yelp, and 1x higher on Instagram, and made up just over 19% of conversational categories across social media. Although there were a fair number of product-related conversations happening on TripAdvisor, it’s at a much lower incidence than the other social media sites and lower than the overall average.

Over 22% of reviews across social media included an image along with the reviewer’s commentary on the particular product. Furthermore, regardless of category, images were usually tied to positive reviews rather than negative ones.


While people didn’t go to TripAdivsor to rate products, they instead took a keener interest in operations than any other site did. Operations made up over 17% of the conversations of the travel review site, a rate 4.5x higher than overall. People wrote warnings to “beware the road construction” and that hotels or rooms were “noisy noisy noisy!”

An interesting note: People seem to rarely complain or talk about safety and damage claims on social media. Perhaps they send those directly to the managers responsible instead.


Pass the salt, please! The mentions of food on Yelp was 1.6x higher and TripAdvisor 1.4x higher than the rest of the online reviews we looked at and was diverse in terms of responses; overall, food was mentioned in 13% of the conversations with almost 8% accompanied by an image.

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Reviews were mixed; words such as “delicious” were unambiguously positive while words such as “awful” indicated disappointment with a dining experience. Perhaps surprisingly, the appearance of “good” in a review didn’t necessarily point to a pleasurable experience. It was frequently accompanied by modifiers such as “but” as in “The sauce was good, but the tortillas weren’t fried” or “the food is never as good as we hope…”. It’s a mixed bag of reviews but that’s unsurprising, considering it’s recently been suggested that writing a negative review is a way to psychologically deal with a bad experience.

Yelp reviewers didn’t tend to post photos in addition to their review — but that’s what people went to Instagram for. When discussing banquet events, people snapped photos and uploaded them to Instagram at a rate over 3x higher than the overall. As events are dominated by photos in social media — and Instagram is entirely photo-driven — it’s possible that people are taking those pictures to commemorate positive experiences, events, and celebrations. (Of course, you could be just trying to one-up your Facebook and Instagram friends.)

The takeaway? Next time you see someone capturing a quick picture of their meal, you can safely bet your friends that it’s ending up on Instagram rather than Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Global Shifts of the World's Cultural Hubs

For millennia, thinkers, artists and business people have been drawn to the big city. These cultural hubs foster the exchange of money and ideas, and people have crossed land and sea to spend their days at the center of civilization. Yet the dominance of any one cultural hub doesn't hold forever, and over the years cities have gone through booms and busts in popularity.

This animation above distills hundreds of years of culture into just five minutes. A team of historians and scientists wanted to map cultural mobility, so they tracked the births and deaths of notable individuals like David, King of Israel, and Leonardo da Vinci, from 600 BC to the present day. Using them as a proxy for skills and ideas, their map reveals intellectual hotspots and tracks how empires rise and crumble

The information comes from Freebase, a Google-owned database of well-known people and places, and other catalogues of notable individuals. The visualization was created by Maximilian Schich (University of Texas at Dallas) and Mauro Martino (IBM).

You can read the research paper in Science or check out Nature's news story for more information.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To Infinity and Beyond: Why the Moon Landing Couldn't Have Been Faked

There's a steadfast group of people who claim that the U.S. faked the moon landing. Since we've just passed the anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon for the first time, it seems appropriate to share this video. Created by a filmmaker, this video goes over exactly how the film technology of the time worked, and how it would have been impossible to fake the moon landing using it. Enjoy!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Let Uber and Lift Roll

Picture courtesy of Ad Meskens

Technological innovation sometimes makes laws obsolete. Consider the “Red Flag Laws” of the late 19th century, which required early automobiles traveling on roads to be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag in order to warn others on horses of the vehicle’s approach. Today, most states require cars traveling on roads to have a human driver at the wheel—a regulation that to our descendants will sound just as preposterous as flag-waving does to us.

The current approach that the Commonwealth of Virginia is now taking against ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft is to just prohibit the new technology until it can be squared with the law. No outright ban is necessary; the government just mindlessly enforces an obsoleted law until it is changed. 
Last week, Richard D. Holcomb, Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, sent letters to the companies instructing them to cease and desist all operations in Virginia until they obtain “proper authority.” Such proper authority doesn’t really mean a taxicab permit from the state, since Uber and Lyft are not really taxicab companies. Instead, proper authority will come when the legislature changes the law to accommodate the new technology.
“As you know,” Holcomb wrote to Uber, “DMV is actively studying Virginia’s passenger carrier laws and business models such as Uber. DMV has invited Uber and other stakeholders to participate in this study and will produce a final report before the next legislative session. I strongly suggest that Uber focus its resources on participation in this study rather than continue illegal operations in the meantime.”
Everything which is not permitted is forbidden, seems to be the message, even if the innovation is not only harmless, but actually improves on the rationale for the law.
Taxicab regulations exist to cure the “information asymmetry” between passenger and taxi driver. “A would-be passenger on a curb can’t see (or smell) the cab’s interior, can’t assess the driver’s record or confirm that the driver knows his way around,” he writes. “Typically, no other cabs are immediately available, so customers can’t feasibly walk away if they think it’ll be a bad deal.”
The way to address this market failure has been regulation: license drivers and regulate prices. In contrast, with Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing platforms, passengers rate drivers and vice versa, so you know what you’re getting into before you get in the car. Everyone’s incentive is to be on their best behavior because poorly rated players are kicked out. “Uber and its competitor, Lyft, solved the asymmetric information problem plaguing the traditional taxi model and obviated the need for state regulators,” writes Mitchell.
Yet even though anyone who’s ever used these services in Virginia can tell you that Uber and Lyft are quicker, safer, cleaner, and cheaper than taxis, the DMV wants to ban the services until they can develop a study and have the legislature give its consent.
Public officials also have a responsibility to exercise discretion in the public interest. It’s clear that the Virginia legislature did not anticipate the invention of platforms like Uber and Lyft when they designed their motor carrier laws, so it would be perfectly reasonable for the DMV to work with the legislature to clarify the law without first banning the services.
The DMV’s alternative, telling Uber and Lyft that they must cease operating because their services don’t fit into any of the regulatory buckets it manages, is pathetically robotic and a disservice to the people of Virginia.
Because officials often have little incentive to abstain from mindlessly enforcing regulations, we should require them to exercise discretion. For example, Section 10 of the Communications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to “forbear from applying any regulation or any provision of this chapter ... if the Commission determines that enforcement of such regulation or provision is not necessary” to achieve the purpose of the law. This hasn’t worked as well as one would hope, but it’s a start.
Rather than react defensively, regulators should allow for permission-less innovation while they determine if and how they will ultimately proceed. Virginia still has an opportunity to show leadership in the face of technological change. It should let Uber and Lyft roll.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Mystery of DNA Explained

BBC Knowledge Explainer DNA from Territory on Vimeo.

BBC Knowledge and Learning is exploring a wide variety of topics from social history to science in a series of three-minute online Explainer documentaries, and commissioned Territory ( to produce an animated film on the subject of DNA.

As Will Samuel, lead designer and animator on the project explains, the approach taken wasn’t just to look into a scientific future. “We needed to find a graphic style to communicate the beauty and intricacy of DNA. We wanted to create nostalgia; taking the audience back to the days of textbook diagrams and old science documentaries, such as Carl Sagan's COSMOS and IBM’s POWER OF TEN (1977). Using the double helix circular theme as a core design we focused on form, movement and colour to create a consistent flow to the animation, drawing on references from nature, illustrating how DNA is the core to everything around us.”

Three minutes is a short time to explore a subject where most doctorates only scratch the surface, so writer Andrew S. Walsh teamed up with molecular biologist Dr Matthew Adams to distil the script down to the most fundamental elements required to understand not only DNA’s form and function but how our understanding of these discoveries has affected the wider world. While this length may feel restrictive, the team found that this limitation acted as a lens, focusing the piece on the essentials.

The Explainer series is designed to intrigue and inform, encouraging those who discover the documentaries to further explore through links to additional information found on the BBC website.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Kentucky Derby Winners

California Chrome Kentucky Derby Winner

In honor of today's Kentucky Derby win by California Chrome, I thought I'd post a breakdown of past Triple Crown winners in the hopes that California Chrome makes his way onto that list.

Triple Crown winners

List of U.S. Triple Crown Winners
1919Sir BartonJohnny LoftusH. Guy BedwellJ. K. L. RossJohn E. Madden
1930Gallant FoxEarl SandeJim FitzsimmonsBelair StudBelair Stud
1935OmahaWillie SaundersJim FitzsimmonsBelair StudBelair Stud
1937War AdmiralCharley KurtsingerGeorge H. ConwaySamuel D. RiddleSamuel D. Riddle
1941WhirlawayEddie ArcaroBen A. JonesCalumet FarmCalumet Farm
1943Count FleetJohnny LongdenDon CameronFannie HertzFannie Hertz
1946AssaultWarren MehrtensMax HirschKing RanchKing Ranch
1948CitationEddie ArcaroHorace A. JonesCalumet FarmCalumet Farm
1973SecretariatRon TurcotteLucien LaurinMeadow StableMeadow Stud
1977Seattle SlewJean CruguetWilliam H. Turner, Jr.Karen L. TaylorBen S. Castleman
1978AffirmedSteve CauthenLaz BarreraHarbor View FarmHarbor View Farm

Failed Triple Crown attempts

The following horses won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but were beaten in the Belmont:
Good luck, California Chrome! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Reason for the Earth’s Seasons as Explained From Space

The reason for the Earth’s seasons is succinctly explained using space imagery in this 2011 video from NASA Earth Observatory. As the year goes on, and the Sun’s rays hit the Earth differently based on the planet’s relative position to it, the seasons change. Winter in a hemisphere is essentially a lack of sunlight.
The four images below, starting with the upper left and going clockwise, show the way sunlight hit the Earth on December 21st, 2010, followed by March 20th, 2011, then June 21st, 2011, and finally September 20th, 2011. Each was taken at 6:12AM using the Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager (SEVIRI) on EUMETSAT‘s Meteosat-9 meteorological satellite in geosynchronous orbit.

Seasons of Space

Image via NASA/Robert Simmon