Using millions of Twitter subscribers as living “sensors,”
engineers from Rice
University and Motorola
Mobility have found a way to monitor fans’ levels of excitement and to keep
track of the action in National Football League (NFL) games—without ever
switching on a TV. SportSense is a computer program the engineers created to
analyze NFL fan tweets in real time. The program can tell within seconds when
touchdowns, interceptions, and other big plays occur, and it can show how
excited fans are about every game that’s being played.
“People don’t often think of themselves as being sensors, but each of
us constantly senses and reacts to our environment,” says SportSense co-creator Lin Zhong, associate
professor of electrical and computer engineering and of computer science at
Rice. “Thanks to social media sites like Twitter, it is now possible to
capture those reactions—for millions of people—in real time. That’s what
In collaboration with engineers from the Betaworks group at the Motorola Mobility Applied
Zhong and his students began creating software to monitor and analyze tweets in
“We chose football because touchdowns, interceptions, and other events
in the game cause a lot of excitement and lead a lot of people to tweet,”
Zhong says. “We found that a careful examination of the tweets could tell
us what was happening in the game. The program can usually tell within 20 sec
when a big play like a touchdown occurs. Often, we see that even before it
appears on the scrolling banners on ESPN and other sites.”
NFL fans’ emotions and their team loyalties come through loud and clear in
their tweets as well, so the software can also determine which team benefited
from the big play.
For example, based on fans’ tweets, the Detroit Lions’ come-from-behind win
over the Dallas Cowboys had the most excitement of all other games played last
Sunday (October 2, 2011). The Detroit-Dallas game had 28 tweets a second on
average for the whole game—more than nine times the total of the least-tweeted
The next most excitement was provided by the New York Jets-Baltimore Ravens
(Sunday night football) and the San
Francisco 49ers-Philadelphia Eagles games.
The least excitement was generated by the Tennessee Titans-Cleveland Browns
and Miami Dolphins-San Diego Chargers games.
Recaps for all of the games can be found via www.sportsense.us.
SportSense will be analyzing games in real-time throughout the NFL season.
To see it in action, visit http://sportsense.us
while games are being played. Recaps of past games, including the 2010-2011
season, are also available.
When more than one game is being played, colored bars at the top of the page
show how excited fans are about each game. When users click to
“watch” a particular game, SportSense displays three graphs: one that
shows the big plays and the overall excitement level of everyone watching the
game and two others that highlight the excitement level of fans cheering for
Zhong says the research team is interested in using the software to sense
other things that are happening in the world.
“Anything with a sufficiently large audience has a similar
potential,” he says. “Things that are televised, like reality shows
and political debates, are certainly possibilities.
“We’re also interested in sensing things on a local scale. For example,
when a storm hits and the power goes out in my neighborhood, I would like to
know when it comes back on—even if I happen to be at work. People tweet about
those types of events, so the signal is there in the data; it’s just a matter
of finding it.”