UIX blog: Social media maps used as a public service

Social media has pervaded nearly every aspect of life. And whether or not you agree with its reach, there's no doubting its efficacy in spreading important news in real time.

There's no hiding now. Well, maybe there's less.

Social media has pervaded nearly every aspect of life. Even those who haven't updated their profile in recent years are still within the reach of live video and embedded tweets as other media outlets include them in broadcasts. And whether or not you agree with its reach, there's no doubting its efficacy in spreading important news in real time.

There has been no better example of social media as a public service than its use in recent events around the globe. We've seen real people get shot and die, we've seen mass eruptions of violence in first-person, and while it may not be enough to save those lives, it has raised awareness of others. As hard as it is to watch these events, the world is arguably worse off if they go unnoticed.

There are about 10 million public geotagged tweets posted every day, and that number is climbing. The server space it would take to archive that data for more than a few days is impressive. For just an idea of what that would entail, here is a map of what 6,341,973,478 tweets look like.


In mid-July, the Facebook Live interactive video map gave the world thousands of eyes on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara where an attempted coup threatened to topple the Turkish government. Even when social media access was being throttled within the country--"a bastion of internet censorship," according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation--footage of the event played out on screens across the world.

Indeed, developed countries will dominate these maps, leaving those without as much technological access appearing silent. But as has been the case with any new global standard of communication, these gaps will soon fill in. Computers and mobile devices cover the planet, so it's no surprise social media broadcasting has caught on so quickly. The infrastructure was already there, we just needed a chance to hit "record."

On Facebook and Twitter, hashtags are obviously still in use, but there are more effective ways of gathering applicable news data. Taking the public information available in specific collections of tweets, we can also see the reach and intensity of a specific topic in real time.

These maps were created from around 10,000 tweets scraped at 6 p.m. Monday, July 25. The blue dotted map details tweets talking about Hillary Clinton and her campaign's most popular related hashtags; the red dotted map details the same for Donald Trump's campaign.

These maps only rely on a tweet's location data but there are may other ways of analyzing a Twitter feed. The content of the tweets on a certain topic can be analyzed to show the tone of public opinion. The chatter surrounding the recent "Ghostbusters" reboot is a good dataset for this. It's easy enough to separate the positive tweets from the negative with a keyword search, but other researchers have gone as far as showing the usage of enflamed and pejorative terms in those reactionary tweets, many aimed at the film's star, Leslie Jones. Contrasted with the investment each of those commentors had made in the film, and how many are Landis family members, another map of collected "ruined childhood" tweets gains new perspective.

Using real-time updates from a specific area, social media is also being used to discover and validate weather forecasts. While something like Leaflet's One Million Tweet Map may give you a look at every channel, a keyword search for geotagged tweets during a certain time farm will narrow that down to a crowd sourced weather broadcast.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. To see more UIX stories, you can check out the entire series here. Have thoughts or ideas about UIX? Contact UIX Grand Rapids Editor Matthew Russell at [email protected].

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