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Observatory for Political Texts in European Democracies - A European Research Infrastructure

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - OPTED (Observatory for Political Texts in European Democracies - A European Research Infrastructure)

Reporting period: 2020-10-01 to 2022-03-31

Liberal democracy is increasingly challenged in Europe and beyond. To support its resilience and sustainability across Europe, it is important to better systematise and to make transparent the activities that take place at all stages of the political process. In principle, social scientists are nowadays in a unique position to systematically observe political and societal developments – but only if they fully exploit the possibilities of the vast amounts of semi-structured data and modern computational techniques that become increasingly available. Since politics mostly happens through written or spoken language, political texts are an important, if not the key resource for gathering systematic information across long time spans and different political systems. Communication is at the heart of many political processes and understanding the current challenges to democracy inevitably must rely on a comprehensive assessment of communicative processes. Political texts produced by the media, political actors like politicians, political parties, governments, or by citizens and non-governmental organisations offer a remarkable opportunity to observe and understand social and political processes. This project seeks to provide the foundational work to build a European infrastructure for political text analysis – OPTED, the Observatory for Political Texts in European Democracies - to better understand the state and dynamics of political processes in European democracies.
OPTED addresses a number of challenges that characterise political text analysis research. First, the research field of political text analysis is fragmented and therefore inefficient. This strains resources, but also impairs the quality of scientific work in terms of reproducibility and validity. Second, the research field is time and context sensitive and language differs between usage areas and over time. Furthermore, the types of information researchers deal with are fundamentally different in shape, format and style, and differences in text domains matter for automated text analysis tasks. Also the European political space is multilingual and observing this space requires multilingual, non-discriminatory tools. Third, the area of text analysis has been criticised for a lack of reliability, validity or reproducibility of research. Hence, quality control remains a major issue for text analysis approaches, and there is a strong need towards a standardisation of processes and routines. Fourth, researchers working with political texts are touching on ethical and legal boundaries, some of which have not even been well defined yet.
Based on the opportunities and challenges it is apparent that the OPTED infrastructure is highly needed to take advantage of the opportunities brought about by digitalization for understanding social and political processes in European liberal democracies. An institutionalization of the field of political text analysis through a common European infrastructure will yield a more impactful, sustainable, resource saving, innovative, democratic, non-discriminatory and substantially meaningful research landscape, putting the European Research Area at the forefront of global developments in this field.
The OPTED consortium thus far has produced a vast amount of groundwork towards addressing the project objectives.
For the different types of political texts, from citizen produced social media texts to media and parliamentary sources, conceptualizations and inventories of data and data resources have been produced and are now openly accessible via the OPTED website and promoted via social media. OPTED provides inventories for European news media sources and access options to their texts, legislative text corpora across European member states and text data from political organisations.
A mapping of the research landscape has shown the need for further development and validation of multi-lingual tools for the diversity of languages in Europe, which OPTED will address. It has also shown the dominance of certain languages and regions in research output, highlighting the need for a truly continental platform that encompasses data from all European nations and encourages researchers to think across borders of countries and languages.
Regarding the tools for political text analysis, OPTED has made accessible and extended previous work on text storage infrastructures for an open science approach across the discipline as well as an open tool for text annotations. Further, it has produced the first steps towards an infrastructure that will interlink different types of text data.
Lastly, OPTED has produced groundwork for what is to become the prototype of the research infrastructure platform, in terms of design and conceptual issues as well as a recently launched survey on community needs. This gives insight into the challenges faced when using text analysis methods and allows OPTED to tailor information and materials to support a wide and inclusive user base.
Regarding ethical and legal issues, OPTED has produced a comprehensive and publicly available report on the challenges to the field of political text analysis which will form the basis of a framework to be produced.
OPTED will (1) provide a framework, services and proof of concept for the technical and conceptual design of a cutting edge European infrastructure, (2) raise awareness of the strategic and substantial need of a long-term funded infrastructure on political text analysis that shapes the observations and comprehension of processes and developments of European democracy, (3) provide a solid and feasible Conceptual Design Report that will function as a convincing decision base instrument for policy makers on the national and European level to support the long-term establishment of the OPTED infrastructure; (4) through the technical and substantial work being carried out under the work in the design study phase and fully functional in the operational phase contribute to new levels of research excellence. The work provided throughout the conceptual design phase will provide proof-of-concept for the operational phase and underline the importance of a long-term establishment of the infrastructure to put research in the area of political text analysis in the European Research Area at the forefront of global initiatives and to inform public debate about the state and future of European liberal democracy.
OPTED will push the boundaries of research excellence in various fields of political text analysis, will generate a globally visible and excellent research community, will democratise research on political texts, both geographically and in terms of skill distributions, and will do so based on FAIR principles with a firm stance in the open science movement. OPTED will establish itself as a major resource for journalists and opinion makers, for students and interested academics, and for policy makers to turn to for systematic information about the state and dynamics of European democracies as evident by political texts. The OPTED infrastructure will become the major hub for political text analysis in Europe and beyond. The resources, standards and services that will be implemented through OPTED are the building blocks for the development of a whole new computational political science of text that is open, transparent, multilingual, flexible, problem focused, gender-aware, text-aware, context-aware and integrated.
Overview of the different work packages and their tasks in the structure of the OPTED project.