UC Berkeley's new Opinion Space Web site visualizes your viewpoints

Creators of Jester online joke recommender now want to know what you think

UC Berkeley's Opinion Space Web site visualizes participants' viewpoints.

You might have a good sense of how your political opinions stack up against those of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nancy Pelosi and Ralph Nader, but a new Web site from the University of California-Berkeley researchers can also show you how your viewpoints stack up against many others.

Opinion Space, which formally launches on Wednesday, is the brainchild of researchers at the Berkeley Center for New Media, the same outfit that brought us the Jester joke recommendation system and the Donation Dashboard, which aids people in giving to charities. The team behind Opinion Space calls it "an experimental model of opinion and dialogue… designed to go beyond one-dimensional polarities such as left/right, blue/red..." They have been working on the site since December.

Like earlier systems from Berkeley Center for New Media, Opinion Space relies on a technology called collaborative filtering to plot your opinions against others' ideas. Collaborative filtering combines "continuous spatial models with statistical techniques (such as Principal Component Analysis) to efficiently represent gradations of input," according to the Opinion Space site.

Screen shot of opinion space

The Web site gives a 3D sort of perspective on a user's opinions, depicting points of view as a constellation of stars glowing brighter or appearing nearer or farther depending on how alike or different they are. Users can check out the opinions of others (including extrapolations of Schwarzenegger's, Pelosi's and Nader's based on their public statements and policies) and change their own opinions over time.

Users are asked to use an on-screen slider to show how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements. The initial series of questions focuses on U.S. politics and includes propositions such as "Gasoline at $0.99 a gallon would be good for Americans" and "President Obama should meet with any interested foreign leaders without preconditions." It also includes an open-ended question: "The U.S. economy is in turmoil. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman warned of a 'crisis in confidence' over a year ago. Do you have a personal experience that illustrates this crisis in confidence? And what strategies might be effective to restore the confidence of American citizens?"

Down the road, other sets of questions will be posed on topics such as education and the environment.

"We definitely plan to develop future Opinion Spaces on techie topics and we think it could be applied in many contexts, from community groups, classes and companies asking for input on their products and services," says Ken Goldberg, a UC Berkeley professor and director of the Berkeley Center for New Media.

Goldberg says Opinion Space was inspired by "frustration with the overload of Facebook and discussion forums, and more importantly by Barack Obama's exciting thoughts on 'participatory democracy'."

Django 1.0 is the Web framework used on Opinion Space's back end and Flex 3 is used for the front end. The system is running with a MySQL database on a Linux server that's using Apache, says Tavi Nathanson, a UC Berkeley electrical engineering and computer science graduate student who is part of the Opinion Space team.

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