Some of the first news reports of the Boston Marathon bombing didn't come from any traditional news source. Instead, they popped up on Twitter and Instagram, two popular social media services where people can post messages, photos and videos almost instantaneously from their mobile phones.
If you're a news reporter or a law enforcement officer, what better way to verify an event than by people who are tweeting and photographing from the scene?
Now, a Naples company called Geofeedia has figured out a way to map the tweets, photos and videos that people post from their mobile devices within seconds.
Scott Mitchell, the chief technology officer of Geofeedia, illustrates his point using a Web-based application he created. Using his mouse and cursor, he highlights an area around Copley Square in Boston and selects the hour the bombs went off at the finish line of the marathon April 15. Within seconds, the screen is plastered with messages, photos and videos of the tragedy, more than any news channel could deliver.
Mitchell, with Chicago-based business partners Phil Harris, CEO, and Mike Mulroy, chief operating officer, launched the business in July 2011 when Twitter, Instagram and other social media services started sharing the location of users who agree to be tagged geographically. Geofeedia has filed for 11 patent applications over the last 18 months, and five have been approved.
As the chief technology officer, Mitchell, 39, is a software engineer whose specialty is computer mapping. So far, Geofeedia raised $1.2 million from investors to fuel its growth. “We bootstrapped the company for the first year,” says Mitchell, who formerly worked for INGage Networks in Naples. “We only started selling in Q1 of this year.”
Already, Geofeedia has 40 customers who pay about $150 per user monthly to track posts from Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr and Picasa. Customers include the Associated Press and Detroit Crime Commission.
For example, police in Detroit track gangs who communicate via social media, querying by location and keywords. “It's almost a code that they talk online,” Mitchell says.
During Hurricane Sandy last year, Geofeedia provided emergency officials complimentary access to its service so they could identify the worst hit locations based on messages, videos and photos people posted of the damage. Because of this, emergency officials were able to respond to the areas with the biggest needs.
The range of uses for this technology could be broad, from medical personnel tracking a flu outbreak to companies promoting their products. For security reasons, Mitchell says Geofeedia vets clients before granting them access. For example, you can't automatically sign up for the service on the company's website. “We all have children, too,” he says. “Most of our customers find us through word of mouth.”
Geofeedia uses Bing maps and covers the globe, so you can view tweets in the Middle East or in Asia. Of course, not everyone is on social media: A recent search in North Korea showed zero tweets.
There are challenges ahead. For example, copycat companies have started touting similar services, and patent protection can only do so much. “You stay ahead of them with good customer service,” Mitchell says.