Media140: Twitter and covering the US elections

Suw and I both spoke at the Media140 last Wednesday. Suw spoke about how Twitter helped build support for Ada Lovelace Day, the international day of blogging to raise awareness about women in science and technology. I talked about how I used Twitter as a reporting and community-building tool during my trip across the US covering the historic 2008 elections.

As I’ve written before, this was my third trip across the US covering the election and every trip included some experimental element. : In 2000, we focused on webcasting; in 2004, I wrote a blog; and in 2008, I built on blogging with an experiment in highly distributed networked journalism and geo-tagging. I experimented with several different services even after I landed in the US: Video services like Viddler and YouTube, geo-location services such as Fire Eagle and location-based social network BrightKite. In the end, I settled on four which became the cornerstones of my coverage: Flickr, Facebook, Delicious and Twitter.

Building contacts

Twitter often helped me develop better contacts who I initially met using other services. For instance, I posted my images to Flickr under a Creative Commons attribution-non-commercial use licence, which I felt was important because I was using Creative Common licenced photos from Flickr to help illustrate my posts. I contacted fellow Flickr users to let them know I had used their pictures, something I try to do as a matter of courtesy and also as a light-weight way to promote our journalism. Sometimes those contacts developed into stories and contacts beyond the original posts. For example, I used this excellent photo of a foreclosed home in California by Jeff Turner, who organises property shows there. He followed me on Twitter and helped me find local contacts for my reporting on the housing crisis.


Sign Of The Times – Foreclosure, by Jeff Turner, Some Rights Reserved

After writing a post about the crisis, I received an e-mail from Ralph Torres whose father had been in the property business for 30 years. Ralph wanted to give me a tour of his neighbourhood, Riverside, one of the hardest hit not only in California, but in the nation. He told me about the history of his neighbourhood and showed me the foreclosed homes on his street. He told me:

Our family went through a few recessions over the years, but it was always real estate sales slowing down. You didn’t have block after block with three or four houses vacant due to foreclosures.

That story made both an excellent article, and I recorded the tour for one of our election podcasts.

Virtual contacts and face-to-face connection

Twitter helped me organise my first of four blogger meet-ups on the trip. A Twitter contact helped not only arrange the guests but also a venue in LA. Having someone local who knew which venue to use was invaluable – it’s on-the-ground knowledge that is hard for a visitor to find.

Connecting and collaborating with fellow journalists

Twitter also connected me to other journalists. One of the stories I read was how the recession was increasing homelessness and creating tent cities, reminiscent of Hoovervilles during the Great Depression. Blogging and Twittering journalist Monica Guzman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer told me about a tent city in Seattle. I doubt I would have learnt of that without her help, and she pointed me to details on the Seattle P-I site, saving me valuable time.

Real-time reporting and aggregation

Twitter proved invaluable throughout the trip, allowing me to stay in touch with friends, other journalists and those following the elections. It acted as a real-time reporting tool and, by using Twitpic, it allowed me to tell the story not just in words but also in pictures. It also was a real-time news feed with news organisations and people flagging up must-read stories and must-watch vidoes in the lead up to the election. One of my friends and followers, Adam Tinworth, said during the trip that he hoped I would get up soon because he needed his election news fix. He told me at media140 that my Twitter feed was the most efficient way to follow the elections.

The night of the election, I had planned to go back to my hotel and finish some writing, but I was caught up in the street celebrations in the city I had called home for seven years. On Twitter, I read reports of how 16th Street, the historic black district of the city, was clogged with revelers. I was downtown near McPherson Square and, early in the morning, people of all races were celebrating Barack Obama’s historic victory. Washington can be a very racially divided city, and I had never seen anything like this.
Celebrations in Washington DC after Barack Obama’s election to the US presidency, by Kevin Anderson, Some Rights Reserved.

But everyone told me that the real party was at the White House. I didn’t have to wait until I got back to my hotel to report. I could report live from the streets, providing pictures (albeit grainy) and quoting the crowds as they chanted outside of the White House: “Whose house? Whose house? Obama’s house! Obama’s house!”

At the end the trip on election night, I heard from Ralph in California. He said on Twitter:

Big thanks to @GuardianUS08 for last month’s visit and chat and for pulling me further into the conversation.

That was the goal and a measure of the success of what I had hoped to achieve with my experiment in highly distributed, networked journalism. Despite the pressures of almost constant reporting over two months and the difficulties of driving across the US, more than 4000 miles in three weeks, Twitter proved incredibly useful as a reporting tool, an aggregation tool and as a tool to take part in a real-time conversation about the election.

The trip also proved the effectiveness of networked journalism. I really don’t think I could have achieved a fraction of what I did without Twitter. It is actually part of a larger trend of how mobile phone technology will open up new opportunities for professional journalists just as it has spawned the citizen journalism movement. Camera phones were just he beginning.

As I said at media140, there are still some work to be done to fully realise the promise of these technologies. In working on Twitter and other platforms, tying together all of the content and providing context was only possible through manual, editorial methods: writing posts on the Guardian and weaving a narrative through the tweets, Facebook questions and Flickr messages. That was an imperfect solution. I had to try to reconstruct Twitter conversations and Facebook threads and tie them together. It was easier with Twitter, seeing as most of the updates were public, but Facebook proved more complicated and less satisfying. But we have done a lot of work at the Guardian this spring to help integrate Twitter into the site, such as we did during the G20 protests when we used ScribbleLive to pull together the updates of several of our journalists.

As I have said in the past, I have been frustrated as a field journalist with having to leave the story to report, but Twitter allowed me to stay in the middle of the story while I was reporting. It also provided me with a real-time conversation with people while I was covering the story, something that seemed a dream four years earlier when I covered the elections in 2004. We’re still only scratching the surface of what is possible, and while it’s a challenging time to be a journalist, I still can’t help think we’re living through a revolutionary time for journalism.

Guardian election road trip review: Geo-tagging

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With the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States now well behind us, I thought I’d take (a long overdue) look back at the road trip that I took during the US elections for The Guardian and talk about some of the things we tried in terms of innovations in coverage and what I learned from it.
This is the third trip that I’ve taken for the US elections. In 2000, I took a trip with BBC Washington correspondent Tom Carver. Webcasts were the thing of the day, and we took a portable satellite dish and a DV video camera to webcast live or as-live (recorded but treated as live). We answered a range of questions covering topics suggested by our global audience. In 2004, I took another trip with BBC News Online colleague Richard Greene. The trip was my introduction to blogging, and it set the path for my career for the last five years.

The common thread through all of these trips has been an attempt to engage the audience in new ways and field test new digital journalism techniques. Over a series of posts I’ll talk about some of the things that we did for US Election trip 2008.


As I mentioned last summer, one of the things that I wanted to try was geo-tagging. I was inspired by the GPS and geo-tagging function in my Nokia N82 to add this to our coverage. The camera in the N82 is stellar. With a 5 megapixel sensor and a brilliant Xenon flash, it is one of the best features in the phone. (I’d be interested in seeing what the new N85 has to offer, apart from the OLED screen. ZDNet has a review.) I’m going to focus on geo-tagging in this post and talk more about mobile newsgathering with the N82 and other smartphones in another post.
As good as the camera is on the N82, I knew that there would be times when I needed Suw’s Nikon D70, a proper D-SLR with interchangeable lenses. But how to add the geo-data? Dan Chung, award-winning photographer and digital innovator at the Guardian, and I had played around with a geo-tagging device from Sony, the GPS-CS1.

A geo-tagger at its most basic has a GPS radio and some memory. It records your location either every so often or after you move a certain distance. It’s not physically connected to the D-SLR in any way, but it does require you to sync the clock from the geo-tagger with the clock in your D-SLR. To add the geo-data to your photos, all you have to do is import the photos to your computer and import the GPS logs from your geo-tagger. Software then compares the time that the photo was taken with your GPS logs and merges the geo-data into the EXIF files of the photos. Newer high-end cameras such as the D200 have GPS add-on units (the GP-1), and point-and-shoot cameras like the P6000 have integrated GPS.

Dan had me test the Song geo-tagger a couple of years ago, and I wasn’t that impressed. It didn’t acquire the satellites very quickly, and Sony didn’t officially support non-Sony cameras. But although the accuracy wasn’t brilliant, the idea is sound.
I looked around and settled on GiSTEQ CD110BT. It has a sensitive MTK chipset with 51-channel tracking, and I found the accuracy to be frighteningly good. The GPS track plotted on Google Earth actually shows when I changed lanes in my rental car. The Sony could take minutes to acquire the satellite, but from a cold start, the GiSTEQ usually got a lock in less than a minute. A synthesised voice says “Satellites fixed” when it’s got a lock. To conserve power, it will shut itself off but wake when moved or vibrated. I carried it around my neck on a lanyard or in the pocket of my camera bag when I was out and about. A supplied light adhesive patch kept it on my dashboard while driving. The unit also comes with both mains (AC) and car chargers.

That’s the good. The bad is that while GiSTEQ says CD110BT will work on PCs and Macs, mine didn’t out of the box. It required a firmware update to work with a Mac, and the firmware updater only works on PCs and didn’t like Windows XP running on Parallels virtualisation software. Fortunately, my friend Andy Carvin at NPR gave me five minutes on his PC to update the firmware, but even after that, I had difficulty getting the device to consistently download data. GiSTEQ has since released a new update that they say fixes this. I downloaded some GPS logs tonight without a hitch.

I’d like to try the Amod AGL3080 (review in Wired), which is touted as a driverless geo-tagger. It simply mounts as an external drive on Mac or PC, and all you need to do is copy the data from it. It uses a highly accurate SiRF III chipset. Unlike the GiSTEQ which is charged via the USB cable, the Amod runs on three AAA batteries. Kevin Jaako has a thorough review of it on his blog.

The software that comes with the GiSTEQ promises a lot and delivers most of it without too much fuss. It’s actually rebranded software from JetPhoto, and as the company says on its site, you don’t actually need a specialised geo-tagger. There are several Garmin or Magellan GPS units that will work with it. The software also works quite nicely with the N82, instantly recognising that the photos already have geo-data embedded in the files. If the geo-data is off, the software has a nice interface to relocate and update the geo-data. It also has a built-in Flickr uploader, although it could be a bit more intuitive and work more seamlessly with Flickr title and description fields.
But I didn’t just geo-tag my photos. I also geo-tagged my tweets using Twibble, a geo-aware Twitter app Nokia S60 phones. Twibble integrates seamlessly with the GPS on the N82. It also allows you to upload pictures you’ve taken with the phone directly to TwitPic. We just used this all to great effect for Guardian Travel’s first TwitTrip with Benji Lanyado. It is pretty heavy on the battery, but I had a power inverter in the car so everything was fully charged all the time. It was also a bonus to have Nokia and Google Maps on the phone for navigation.
I also geo-tagged all of my blog posts. I either took the geo-data from a Tweet or a photo, or if I didn’t have any geo-data handy, I used sites like or to generate geo-data from an address.
Visualising the trip
Thanks to a quick bit of python scripting by Guardian colleague Simon Willison, I have a KML file for all of the 2059 photos that I took over the more than 4000 miles of the trip. One of the reasons that I wanted to geo-tag pictures, posts and tweets was that while I know most of these towns, I wanted to give a global audience a sense of place.

But apart from easily visualising the trip, why all the fuss to do this? Adding geo-data to content is one of those fundamental enabling technological steps. It opens up a world of possibilities for your content. By geo-tagging your content, it allows users to subscribe to content based on location. Geo-tag your movie and restaurant reviews, and you can start leveraging emerging location-based services on mobile phones. With Google Maps on mobile and other mapping services, news organisations could provide real-time location based information. Geo-data allows users to navigate your content by location instead of more traditional navigation methods.
Some companies are already dipping their toes into geo-data. Associated Press stories hosted on Google News have a small inset Google Map inset based on the location information in the dateline. New York Times stories appear on Google Earth. But datelines are imprecise because they are city-based, but when you pull up more accurate data you can do much more. You can see the possibilities of mapped information on
But to get from most news sites to Everyblock, you’ve got to put in the foundational work both on the technical side and the journalistic workflow. Having said that, it’s not rocket science. It might seem a lot of work up front, but once the work is done, geo-data provides many opportunities, some of which could provide new revenue streams.