Feel like you’re hacking, Step 6: Geotags, -codes and -locators

In Step Five, we found geospatial metadata on a photo. But photos aren’t the only files that carry metadata about their locations onto the web with them. Geotagging – basically attaching location data to a post or file – is popular on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. In fact, the entire premise of FourSquare is literally just that.


Geotagging usually goes like this: someone tweets a post like, “romantic view! <3<3” and adds a tag to show where they are, like “Eiffel Tower.” This is useful for adding context to your post or showing off to your friends.

On a deeper level, though, geotagging usually means attaching coordinates to your post. Geocoding or geolocating basically mean finding those coordinates. You can use the API console from Step Five to find these coordinates, if the user has enabled location services on their phone or Twitter account. The same goes for other social media sites.

But you can also reverse engineer this to find posts within certain geographic locations, by using coordinates as a search parameter. Let’s try searching for tweets about NICAR from the hotel. One way to find the hotel’s coordinates is by locating it on Google Maps, right-clicking on that spot and selecting “What’s here?” The spot’s coordinates will pop up.

map We can paste those coordinates into a Twitter search, following this format:

#NICAR14 IRE geocode:39.287120,-76.620611,.1mi

So we’re searching for tweets that

  1. Use the hashtag #NICAR14
  2. Include the text “IRE”
  3. Were posted from within one tenth of a mile…
  4. Of 39.287120, -76.620611. (Note that when searching in Twitter, there are no spaces after colons or commas.)

That’s a specific text request in a small geographic area, so it only netted me one tweet:

I can guess from this that Lauren regularly geotags her tweets, so I also found this one, from a few days ago. Clicking on “Columbia, MO, United States” at the bottom of the tweet will take us to a google map, where we can see where she tweeted from. It’s easy to cross-reference those coordinates with directories or people-finding websites to guess where she lives, works or hangs out.

I can also tell from the API console that Lauren was tweeting using the Twitter app on an iPhone. iPhones give more specific coordinates than do tweets from the Twitter website on a computer. Plus, as the BBC’s Paul Myers notes in his guide to verifying tweets, a user can easily fake a geotag by simply saying they’re somewhere else. That’s easier to do with a laptop than an iPhone.

Geolocation data can be useful for journalism in other ways, as well. Check out this fun story from Buzzfeed on using IP addresses to track the changes that members of Congress made to their own Wikipedia pages.

There’s always more to show with these tools, but I’ve got to stop this tutorial somewhere. Feel free to get in touch with me at samanthasunne@gmail.com or @samanthasunne with any questions, comments or whatever!

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