iWitness, a new Twitter service that searches tweets by time and location: Works well for breaking news, not so well for other news pieces

I tested iWitness over the weekend trying to locate local sources for a few news reports; the results show iWitness works well in a breaking news situation where the event affects a lot of people in a relatively small area (e.g., Colorado Spring wildfire), but it doesn’t work equally well in other situations.

What iWitness is and why it has potential for news reporting

iWitness is a web-based service launched in June 2012; I’ll quote a news article to explain what it is and does:

iWitness uses geolocation data shared by users to pinpoint the location where a post, photo, or video originated. iWitness allows users to see content from a particular location in real time or by specifying a time range.

iWitness was one of the winners of the 2011 Knight News Challenge, an open competition awarding grant funding for innovative new media and information projects held annually by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

“iWitness could be one of the most important tools during a breaking news event. Newsrooms are always turning to Twitter to find initial reports from the scene of breaking news and iWitness lets you find those key tweets and photos”

How I tested iWitness with two news pieces in the past week

An issue: Karen Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor in Greece, N.Y., was verbally abused by several teenagers on the school bus. The video of her being bullied went viral on the web last week and prompted a massive online donation for her; by Saturday, June 23, the donation surpassed $600,000.

The scenario: I wanted to locate several sources in Greece, N.Y., for a news article. I was hoping to find local people tweeting about her, so that I could use some tweets as quotes, and some tweets may even lead to close friends or relatives of the bus monitor.

An event: On Friday, June 22, the jury would deliver its verdict for Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State coach. Media from across the country were waiting outside the courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., till late Friday night.

The scenario: I’m an online editor for a regional news site who couldn’t make it to the courthouse, but want to include a few local sources in an article about the verdict.

Mixed results for what I expected

For the bus monitor case, I designated a three-day timeframe (Thursday thru Saturday, June 21, 22 & 23) around Greece, N.Y. The service “scanned” for a while and returned hundreds of tweets. Below is a screen shot of the iWitness interface with search results:

The result: I only found two tweets that explicitly talked about this case. One tweet shows promise as the author says “she is a monitor in my middle schoolers district.” I will contact the author of this tweet for an interview and ask if she can introduce me some other sources. See a screen shot of these two saved tweets:

For the Jerry Sandusky case, I designated Friday, June 22, and Bellafonte, Pa., as the search criteria. Again there are hundreds of tweets, and this time I did have quite a few photos and tweets around the courthouse and about the Sandusky case.

However, upon a closer look, the three or four frequent authors of relevant tweets are all with regional or local media – they all used some sorts of hashtag (e.g., #sandusky) in their tweets. I could not find any local people tweeting about it – at least not through my (quick) reading of the several hundred tweets.

Additional test and thoughts: Ongoing tropical storm news in Florida

In the news article mentioned above, it says that “While in development, iWitness was tested in five news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post,” and it is good for breaking news.

There was not much of a breaking news happening in the last week or two; so I decided to test the ongoing big news in Florida: as of Monday, June 25, tropical storm Debby is inching close to Apalachicola, Fla., and the state of Florida announced a state of emergency. I wanted to find out how local people in Apalachicola are preparing for the landing of this storm.

I designated my search criteria as Apalachicola, Fla., and Monday June 25. To my surprise, I found nothing: no tweets at all for Monday around Apalachicola; see the screen shot below:

And this brings up a concern or issue that I have about iWitness – its limitation in locating relevant tweets. The service says it cannot locate tweets that do not have geotagged information, which means if you tweet on your computer, then your tweet does not have location information attached to it and won’t show up in iWitness’s search.

So iWitness can only locate tweets sent with location information, such as tweets sent on iPhone. However, I could not find my own tweets in my area, sent on my iPhone. I tried tweeting on my iPhone in several locations in my area, but could not find any of them in later searches.

If this is happening to me, it may happen to other people: I highly doubt that nobody was tweeting anything about the imminent landing of a big storm in Apalachicola, Fla.

On a final note, iWitness works best, if not only, with Safari – the mac platform web browser.

Update: Success story with Colorado Spring wildfire

I tested the service again this afternoon (June 27) for local tweets in Colorado Springs, Colo., where tens of thousands of local residents are being evacuated due to the “monster” wildfire.

I searched for tweets in Colorado Springs between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and found a good number of tweets by local residents (not press people), some tweets have photos taken in and around that area.

Below is a screenshot of a few tweets I saved:

About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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2 Responses to iWitness, a new Twitter service that searches tweets by time and location: Works well for breaking news, not so well for other news pieces

  1. jjg (@jjg) says:

    Hi, this is Jesse James Garrett, project lead for iWitness.

    First of all, thank you so much for your thorough and thoughtful evaluation of iWitness. This is exactly the kind of feedback that can help improve the product.

    A couple of quick technical clarifications:
    – You can add location to a tweet posted via Twitter’s website using a destop or laptop computer. However, the location will not be as precise as what you get when posting from a GPS-enabled phone or tablet.
    – iWitness works equally well on Safari and Google Chrome, both of which are available for both Mac and Windows computers.
    – As for the trouble you had locating tweets from your own iPhone on iWitness, adding location data to your tweets involves several different settings on your phone. First, you have to turn Location Services on for your phone; then you have to authorize your Twitter client to access your location; and then you have to attach your location to a tweet. (Yes, that’s a lot of steps. For what it’s worth, once you’ve done that, it stays that way until you change it.)

    You are quite right in pointing out the major limitation of iWitness: the unpredictability of geotagged content. Because geotagging of content has been essentially a novelty up until now, few people use it in any deliberate way. The vast majority of users of social media services haven’t learned how to geotag their content or why they might want to. Inevitably, a lot of content that is absolutely location-relevant currently goes untagged, simply because people don’t know about the feature.

    Additionally, you can’t use iWitness for long without discovering that there’s a lot of, well, noise out there — people sharing their location when it has nothing to do with what they’re posting. Because many Twitter clients treat location sharing as a persistent setting, people often forget to turn it off. As a result, a lot of people seem to be geotagging everything they post, probably without even being aware of it.

    That said, the focus of iWitness solely on geotagged material is quite deliberate. My goal was to deliver the best possible experience for exploring content by time and place, and broadening the scope of the tool to make either of these optional would defeat that purpose. iWitness was never intended to be a general-purpose tool for social media research — there are plenty of those out there already.

    My hope is that as iWitness and similar tools become more widely available, social media users will start using geotagging in savvier ways. I’m sure the problems outlined above will always be with us, but if people who witness news events know that geotagging their content will connect them with an audience they might not otherwise reach, I think they’ll be more likely to do so.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts!

  2. mulinblog says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I believe that with more improvements, iWitness will be a useful tool for news organizations.

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