South Africans' happiness is being tracked hourly in the days leading up to the elections, using a new index that analyses their Tweets.
The index – the brainchild of wellbeing economists Professor Talita Greyling of the University of Johannesburg and Dr Stephanie Roussouw of the Auckland University of Technology – is an important tool to "take the temperature of the economy", says economist Dawie Roodt, who is providing a daily interpretation of the data.
It will help keep a finger on the country's pulse over the election period, the researchers believe.
Roodt and Greyling say economists use a "myriad of economic indicators or aggregates to measure all kinds of aspects of an economy".
"Well-known indicators are Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Consumer Price Index, exchange rates and interest rates," they said in a note.
"On the one hand we have 'hard' actual numbers and on the other, we have a bunch of 'soft' data.
"The 'arty' bit comes in when a good economist can combine all this information with experience and insights, to eventually be able to gauge what is really going on in an economy."
How it's done
The Tweets of some 8.3 million South Africans – just under 15% of the population – are being monitored and analysed using sophisticated software for sentiment analysis. They are classified as positive, neutral or negative.
Individual words are not analysed, but rather the overall sentiment of the Tweet. According to Greyling, this gives a better reading.
A sentiment balance algorithm is used to derive the Gross National Happiness (GNH), measured on a scale of 1 to 10 – with 1 being very unhappy and 10 being very happy.
From there, the researchers can monitor the movement of the national "mood".
Why it matters
Roodt said that when the happiness index was added to other economic indicators, such as GDP growth data, the unemployment rate, inflation, consumer and business confidence and the like, a more accurate picture of the state of the economy emerged.
Greyling told Fin24 that, although Twitter users were not necessarily a fully representative sample, the research reached users all over the country, even in very small towns, and several million users was a very large sample.
What it reveals
According to Greyling, research has shown in the past that there is a correlation between happiness and voter turnout – but South Africa does not always follow trends, she added.
Roodt said it was potentially useful to see whether happiness correlated with other measures of economic health.
He also noted that the index was a leading index, not a results index. That is, the data gathered gives an indication of what may happen in future.
Happiness and economic health
Since 2013, the United Nations has published the World Happiness Index annually. South Africans have consistently scored below neutral (5), indicating that they are unhappy.
Some researchers have argued previously that the most important factors determining happiness in a country are income level, closely related to employment levels and opportunities; access to services such as water, electricity and housing; health; social support; freedom to make decisions about their life; the generosity of society; a feeling of safety; democracy; and the absence of corruption.
It is "very clear" that many of these factors are closely tied to economic performance, Roodt said.
Greyling noted that recent days had seen the country's happiness lying "on the happy side", ranging between 5.6 and 6.4.
"What will happen with the voting, I can't be sure," she said. This was one of the areas that would be monitored, she added.
The index could potentially also provide some longer-term insight into the relationship between the country's mood and investment behaviour, she said.
"We suspect that a happier country will also reflect a more optimistic financial market and as the country’s mood changes, we should be able to see a similar pattern on our financial markets, " Roodt said.
"If it becomes clear that our political landscape could be changing over the next few days, will it reflect in the GNH index and will the markets follow suit?"
Greyling told Fin24 that she and Roussouw were aiming to launch the same type of index for New Zealand in the near future. Wellbeing is a major objective in that country, she said.
* The Happiness Index was developed by Roussouw and Greyling, who are wellbeing economists. Roodt is providing interpretation of the data, with input from Greyling and Roussouw, who are responsible for data analysis.
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