Computational linguists predict TIME's Person of the Year using computer model

Date: 11 December 2013

Introduction: On Wednesday 11 December the American Magazine TIME will announce its Person of the Year 2013. Ever since 1927 TIME has annually named a Person of the Year. In doing so, the American weekly journal highlights the one person who, according to TIME's editors, most influenced the news that year, in a positive or negative way.

An international team of computational linguists from the University of Antwerp, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Meertens Institute en University of Illinois has now built a quantitative model that has predicted the outcome for 2013. The model only uses the articles which TIME itself published during the previous year.

Mike Kestemont (University of Antwerp, Belgium) explains: “With computational linguistics methods it is possible to measure the cultural impact of people in texts. It turns out to be very significant, for instance, if a person is continuously mentioned in a long series of issues of TIME. Instead of using the plain frequencies of names, the model uses an advanced technology called ‘Learning to Rank’, which is often used by online search engines. The model moreover makes smart use of Wikipedia to resolve ambiguous person names. Computers cannot determine which ‘Clinton’ is meant in a text.”

29% percent accurate

The researchers have tested their model on a previous list of Persons of the Year. For the period 1923-2006 the Person of the Year was among the model’s top ten candidates in 78%. Furthermore, the model was able to rank the correct person in first position in 29% of the cases. These are excellent scores, because the magazine often mentions over 5000 distinct persons per year. Sometimes, TIME even elects abstract groups, such as ‘The American Soldier’ in 2003 or ‘You’ in 2006. “Understandably, the method fails in the case of such difficult to predict choices”, says Kestemont.

Folgert Karsdorp (Meertens Institute, Amsterdam / Radboud University Nijmegen) further comments: “It is quite surprising that we were able to model this mediatized election in a lot of cases. Perhaps our prediction will prove right tomorrow, perhaps not. TIME’s editors always have the last word and they are certainly not scared of last-minute surprises. We’ll see.” These results demonstrate the major role which computers are yet to play in scientific research, especially in what is nowadays called the ‘Digital Humanities’ or ‘eHumanities’.

For 2013 the model predicted the following ranking, with Barack Obama in first position and a surprising third position for actress Miley Cyrus. The recently deceased Mandela falls only just outside the top 10. The international team of researchers now anxiously awaits Wednesday morning’s official announcement of TIME’s Person of the Year 2013. In the near future they will submit their method for peer review with a leading scientific journal.

1 Barack Obama
2 Vladimir Putin
3 Miley Cyrus
4 George W. Bush
5 Angelina Jolie
6 Katie Couric
7 David Bowie
8 Rush Limbaugh
9 John Kerry
10 Hamid Karzai