David Elks: Which Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor is the most interesting?
"QUOTES are for colour, not to tell the whole story."
These words from an old journalism lecturer were designed to explain the role of quotes in a story, in that it's the journalist's job to tell the story with his or her words.
The quotes from individuals are there to illustrate and support the story.
Of course, you can still tell a lot about a person by the way they speak. Or can you?
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It was on the back of the cringeworthy performances of the city council – particularly council leader Mohammed Pervez – during the TV documentary The Year The Town Hall shrank that I wondered if there might be an objective way of assessing councillors on the basis of what they say.
What I've done is go to the city council's website, and use a computer to then grab each of the 500-plus press releases, and then extracted a total of 193 quotes made by the council leader and his cabinet members.
I've then calculated a few simple measures designed to eke out details in their recorded speech such as the lexical diversity (or interesting-ness factor, if you like) of each politician, as well as a count of the things they are most likely to say.
Of course, these quotes are just a fraction of the words spoken by these individuals in public.
I could have used The Sentinel's own archive for a far greater range of quotes, although some councillors might suggest their specific quotes were inaccurate.
To avoid that, I've decided to use press releases as councillors essentially have to provide a 'signed off' quote which they agree to. Admittedly, this selection also introduces a bias, but at least councillors can't complain that they don't agree to what they've been quoted as saying.
So what do you find?
Well, it turns out that the councillor most likely to say something interesting – if by that you mean not using the same words over and over – is Alan Dutton, below, cabinet member for education. Of course, he has only been quoted three times, but he's twice as more likely to say something new than either Mr Pervez or Mark Meredith, who is the most-quoted person in the sample.
(I'd love to claim a possible connection to Mr Dutton's lexical diversity and the fact that he was the lead singer – Alan Avon – in a number of garage bands in the late 1960s and 1970s including Hedgehoppers Anonymous. It might be true, but I can't prove it.)
All the councillors have stock phrases to which they return time and again.
For example, council leader Mr Pervez's most popular phrases are 'Mandate for Change' – a phrase which for me has become synonymous with Prime Minister David Cameron's vacuous mantra 'Big Society' (vague and untestable) – along with 'bus station', 'last year', 'big names', 'tough times' and 'local democracy'.
Mark Meredith, who holds the portfolio for economic development, culture and sport, is most likely to use phrases like 'art gallery', 'Potteries Museum' and 'Staffordshire Hoard'.
In the light of the latest disclosures around the aborted closure of the Dimensions splash pool in Burslem, I couldn't find any use of the word 'facilitate'.
After 'bus station', the sixth most common two-word utterance for Ruth Rosenau, cabinet member for regeneration, planning and transportation, is 'exciting time'. The seventh is 'economic growth'.
As you might expect, most use phrases tied to their individual portfolio of responsibility.
For instance, Adrian Knapper, cabinet member for public health, is most likely to say: "minimise disruption."
Paul Shotton, who heads up finance, talks about 'best value-for-money', 'career prospects' and 'find savings', while Gwen Hassall uses phrases including 'young people', 'cold calling' and 'domestic violence'. Beyond that, there's not much else.
Given most of us have the ability unconsciously to quickly and accurately judge others on what they say – and crucially often what they don't say – you might think: so what?
But with the vast amounts of textual information now being created in documents and on social networks, it will increasingly important to have tools that allow computers to highlight and react to nuances in the use of the spoken word.
There are thousands of people now using Twitter in and across Stoke-on-Trent, with dozens of updates posted about what's happening around the city.
It would be impossible for a reporter to be awake 24 hours a day to read and assess every update.
But if we could teach a computer to analyse this stream of content we could improve our ability to react and report on breaking news. And improve our service to readers.
David Elks is an aggregation co-ordinator and data journalist.