Twitter is a global, public conversation. That’s a big part of its beauty. You never know what serendipitous connections will be made in 140-characters or less. (See Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ entertaining banter with the rapper Drake, or Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif making news by walking back his nation’s Holocaust denial in response to a tweet last week).
But if you want to make those same interesting connections in your own neighborhood, Twitter takes a lot more effort to navigate. This is why researchers at Microsoft are experimenting with a mobile web application that can filter Twitter’s billions of tweets a week down to a hyperlocal level.
"There are not really good tools out there right now that can really help you figure out what’s happening with people right in your neighborhood," says Shelly Farnham, a researcher at Microsoft’s FUSE Labs who led the project. "Many today are asking, ‘how can we help civic communities work together...to achieve common social good?’ The best tools are the ones that people are already using."
The project, from Microsoft’s research division, is called Whooly, and it is currently being tested in the Seattle area with about 1,000 volunteers. The focus is on four neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Wallingford, and West Seattle.
When a person signs into Whooly from a Twitter account, the site surfaces and summarizes content, trending keywords, people, and events that are relevant to his or her neighborhood. The tool scans Twitter profile information and the content of tweets themselves to determine who actually lives in the neighborhood, as opposed to tourists or visitors that would pop-up if Whooly looked at only, say, GPS coordinates. It marks a cute-looking owl on the profile of Twitter users who it identifies as "hubs" in their communities. These tend to be local bloggers, business owners, or news agencies.
Social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter handle discussions in people’s personal and work lives well enough, says Andres Monroy-Hernandez, another Microsoft researcher who is working on the project. But they don't perform well in discussions related to civic life, struggling to attract a critical mass of users. The researchers imagine Whooly is perfect for large, dense cities, where many younger people already use Twitter and might have trouble connecting with their neighborhoods. Below is a graphic of how researchers mapped the social network connections within and outside of several Seattle area neighborhoods. Below is a graphic of how researchers mapped the social network connections within and outside of several Seattle area neighborhoods.
It’s not hard to imagine how Whooly could be useful in organizing people around a problem in their neighborhood or generating buzz for an event. In emergencies, like a snow storm or even a national event like the Boston marathon bombings, Whooly could help people find information from others nearby.
Given Twitter’s growing popularity and influence, especially during breaking news events, it seems surprising that no one has created something like Whooly already. But Farnham says it’s actually not that technically easy to do. Social network analysts love Twitter for its public "firehose" of millions of tweets a minute. But in one single geographic community, a spike on Twitter might be represented by just 20 or 30 messages an hour. "The data is pretty sparse. The algorithmic development that happens in the field, that usually relies on large amounts of this kind of data," she says. Twitter shows a list of 10 trending topics for entire cities, but that's about it.
Right now, Whooly is only a prototype with no actual plans to develop a product or integrate it into existing Microsoft software. Whether that eventually happens will depend partly on how testing goes. But for now, the researchers are still signing up volunteers in Seattle to try it out. If you live in the area, you can check it out here.