Location-based social media monitoring

Beacon Hill, Sunday night, 10:50 p.m.: Sitting at my kitchen table, I heard a series of pops followed immediately by the sound of sirens.  “Were those gunshots or fireworks?  Should I be worried?  And are the sirens related to the pops I heard?”  

My first reaction was to search for possibly related posts on Twitter while looking for a live audio feed of Boston police scanners.  Instead, I remembered reading about the location-based social media search services that aggregated posts from across several platforms, and I tried the first one I could quickly get a free trial for: Echosec.

Instead of searching across several social media platforms separately, Echosec allowed me to search for all geotagged posts in an area of my choosing and within specified date ranges.  My story has a simple ending — I found on Echosec that neighbors on reddit posted that it was definitely fireworks, which was later confirmed by the police through the live feed.  

Nothing became of this tiny story, but imagine the uses for location-based social media monitoring services in situations with more impact and higher stakes.  

Using Echosec (and other similar services) for discovery and identification

Google “location-based social media monitoring,” and you’ll find pages of lists suggesting various services, most of which appear to be enterprise services.  While many of these services appear to primarily serve police departments, security companies, and marketing departments of large businesses, over the last couple years, journalists have also used these tools to assist their reporting.  For example:

  • At NBC 5 in Chicago, a producer used Geofeedia to quickly find photos of people who were hiding inside a building after an employee shot his boss.  Based on these photos, the station was able to identify potential sources.
  • A social media editor for The Associated Press used SAM to identify students at a South Dakota high school where a shooting was foiled, which led to a reporter being able to conduct an interview to confirm details seen on social media.

In more general cases, these tools can also be used to get a sense for people’s reactions to news and events across the board, not only to identify sources and images.  Broadly, using geolocated social media search tools as several benefits over simply searching on Twitter.

  • Aggregating data from many social media platforms saves time in pressing situations.
  • Aggregation also provides more comprehensive coverage, especially as different social media platforms are prominent in different areas of the world.
  • Searches can be more location-specific and time-specific than most apps allow within their own search function.

Drawbacks to these services

However, there are two major hurdles these services have to overcome to gain more mainstream traction:

  1. They’re relatively costly.  At the lower end, Echosec costs $129 per user per month, and as of 2012, the much more powerful Geofeedia’s preliminary pricing was $1,450 per month for five users.  (And as I searched through lists of services that were only a couple years old, I found that free versions don’t seem to last long in the marketplace, or if they still exist, are not well supported.)  Either the prices have to come down, or the services have to become much, much better than they currently are in order to make the price tag worth it for newsrooms that are satisfied searching on their own.
  2. The vast majority of social media posts are not geolocated. While the percentage varies by platform (Instagram, for example, tends to have “a lot more [geolocated posts] than Facebook, Youtube, or other platforms”), a Knight Lab sample of 200,000 tweets run in 2015 found less than 0.4% were geocoded.  This means that while you can get a sample of tweets that are geolocated, you do have to make sure not to rely on these tools too much — you could miss an important non-geocoded post that does not turn up in your searches.

That said, for many reporting purposes, simply knowing how to strategically search on popular social media sites is enough.  For journalists without access to these fancier aggregated geolocation search tools, old-fashioned hashtag-hunting and keyword-monitoring may be sufficient.

The potential

A common accusation recently is that the “mainstream media” has lost touch with the average American.  One way to gain easy access to some representation of those viewpoints (although we do then get into the issue of comment rage and trolls — which we’ll sidestep for now) is to see what everyone is saying across various social media channels and be able to check for location-based trends.  After all, the Internet is supposed to be the great equalizer — according to a 2016 Pew Research study, 87% of Americans use the internet.  That percentage will only grow.

Going forward, I do think location-based social media monitoring tools have the potential to become even more powerful as a way to explore the public conversation and identify trends, or simply to get the “pulse” of the public.