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Summary:

When a data scientist crunched enough numbers to predict that Sweden would win this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest, he felt fairly confident. But he didn’t expect that the biggest noise would be the inaccurate prediction that Malta would do well — something he’s now apologized for.

martin o'leary

On Saturday night millions of people all over Europe — all over the world, in fact — tuned in to the annual Eurovision Song Contest, a cheesy televisual explosion that many worship as a festival of camp, cross-border craziness. In a three-and-a-half hour live broadcast from Azerbaijan (yes, really), viewers from 42 countries listened to 26 songs and voted for which one they liked the most.

Amid all that, you might think that guessing the winner would be hard. But one man predicted the result… sort of.

Meet Martin O’Leary, a glaciologist and data nerd who works at the University of Michigan. O’Leary, who calls himself a “recovering mathematician,” decided to use statistical analysis on Eurovision to try and understand which country would win:

Sweden’s going to win, unless it’s Malta, or maybe somebody else. If you average together the taste in pop music of all of Europe, you get a Hungarian. Don’t trust the scores on Saturday night, they’re just toying with your emotions.

And guess what? Sweden won!

You can read O’Leary’s entire series of posts to understand how he arrived at that conclusion, but here’s the quick version.

He did it by taking performing a Bayesian analysis on a wide range of previous Eurovision results, taking into account a few important factors with his model. First, the recognition that while Eurovision is a song competition, the results are not really based on the quality of song — although it can play a part. Then there’s the fact that there are semi-finals (held to whittle the number of contestants down) that allow some songs to be tested in public.

And then, most importantly, there’s the recognition that Eurovision is heavily influenced by transnational politics: which countries like which other countries plays a big part in voting. Entrants from the Balkans, for example, tend to trade votes with each other. Greece nearly always awards maximum points to Cyprus and vice versa. Big European powers like the U.K, France and Germany perform less well than smaller countries with lots of positive sentiment toward them.

But while O’Leary’s number-crunching enabled him to predict Sweden’s victory — and claim a victory for data modeling — it wasn’t infallible.

In particular, his prediction that Malta would be in the mixed seems to have caused some consternation. His guess was so exciting to the Maltese that it even made the newspapers, but in the end the country’s entry came in a measly 21st out of 26.

This was clearly upsetting to the Maltese, so he issued an apology:

This prediction caused quite a stir in Malta, with a story in the Times of Malta and over 16,000 pageviews from Malta1 on Saturday alone. Many took this as good evidence that Malta were going to do well in the contest, and some people were rather annoyed with me when they did not.

I’d like to apologise if I misled anyone. I didn’t expect anyone to take the model predictions particularly seriously, and if I had known, I would have included some more caveats and explanations of exactly what the model was predicting. Instead, I was fairly loose and jokey about the model results, and didn’t really talk about what they meant in real terms. Sorry, guys.

But will they forgive him?

  1. haha of coures we forgive him! The Maltese love the Eurovision precisely because it is cheesy, campy fun. We came close to winning a couple of times (look up Chiara’s “Angel”) and it would be lovely to host the event over here – but other than that, the serious musicians on the island would never go near the contest…

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  2. *course

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  3. Rodí O'Leary Monday, May 28, 2012

    Despite the block and political voting amongst countries, the best song always wins and this year was no exception. A lot of the entries are kitch in the extreme as the staging of the number on the night is as important as the tune itself – but that’s half the fun of watching it.

    More importantly, the winning ‘performance’ (a more accurate description) is almost always a great piece of catchy pop, this year being a prime example.

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    1. Bobbie Johnson Monday, May 28, 2012

      I’m not sure that’s entirely true, Rodi. Sweden’s entry was pretty good — it’s been a genuine chart hit in a few countries already — and the slightly odd dancing was OK.

      But to suggest that it’s all about the best song would mean no duff songs ever succeeded.

      Two examples from the past decade that I think were below par, even for the night: I Wanna from Latvia (2002) and Believe from Russia (2008). The point of the model was not that block votes are necessary per se, but that having a lot of inbound friendships can be very useful.

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  4. Eurovision is a load of rubbish, who cares?

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  5. The statements like “Eurovision is a song competition” are incorrect. Eurovision is a department of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of national broadcasters. Eurovision is a network for distributing TV content such as news footage and sports events.

    Now, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is a song competition, arranged by EBU and distributed through the Eurovision network. Referring to the ESC as “Eurovision” shows that you are either clueless, born in the 1990s or later, or from a country that wasn’t part of EBU before 1993. Almost everyone else has grown up with the countless Eurovision transmissions of various events, mainly sports, all opening with the Eurovision logo and the theme of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Te Deum.

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    1. Bobbie Johnson Monday, May 28, 2012

      Sorry, are you complaining that I’m referring to the Eurovision Song Contest as “Eurovision” in the headline and not calling it by its full name? That’s common shorthand here in the U.K.

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      1. I can’t speak for others but I didn’t have any complaint about the title of the article, Bobbie Johnson, as you referred to the contest name correctly in the article. What caught my eye, and perhaps that of @Swede was a prior comment that “Eurovision was” well, trashy and not worthy of news coverage. That wasn’t necessary.

        This GigaOm article was fun. I read most of O’Leary’s posts as they appeared, and thought it was great that you were able to get a photo of him to include here.

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  6. It doesn’t take a statistical model to forecast the winner. Just look at who sells most on iTunes and you have the winner! Guess who topped the list in like 14 countries?

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  7. Sweden had the best song, was top of the charts in 6 countries before the competition and was odds on favorite to win anyway. U didn’t need to be a math genuis to predict them as winner

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