A lesson from Superstorm Sandy: How to find sources using social media

By Ian Silvera

In a world where an extraordinary amount of people own smartphones, it’s easier than ever to connect instantaneously with those affected by significant news events wherever you happen to be based. But what tools can help reporters find those affected?

Simple searches on Twitter or Facebook may present too many ‘junk leads’ to wade through. Tools like TweetDeck are better, but what if you were able to find social media users more quickly through geolocation? Surely that would be a much more efficient method?

There are numerous websites out there that offer this functionality.

GeoChirp, for instance, is a fusion between Google Maps and Twitter. By circling an area you can identify tweets coming from the designated zone. Some of the tweets I tried to locate, though, were not from my desired location and the amount of media collected is small in comparison to that being churned out by Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

The bad news is that if you want a more advanced and accurate geo-location programme you might have to pay for it.

GeoFeedia is a new social media collection tool with a clean, easy-to-use dashboard that uses software to identify real-time tweets, Instagram pictures and YouTube videos.

Social media storm

While I was on an internship at a well-known news channel Superstorm Sandy hit the north east coast of the United States. In its wake of destruction were thousands of people whose homes were flooded and their possessions wrecked.

With the power down, and victims looking for shelter, I turned to social media to track down some sources.

My initial searches on Twitter were useless – the feed was clogged with links to news websites and users who were not affected by the disaster, discussing the horrendous aftermath with their followers.

To cut through the masses of information and misinformation I used a free trial of GeoFeedia to locate contacts.

A selection of media over the North East of the United States

In a breaking news environment I was able to secure more than four interviewees per day, collect user generated content (UGC) for the organisation’s iPad application and even commission a New York resident to record a YouTube video diary account for the programme.

I found GeoFeedia’s filtering features to be particularly helpful. Instead of looking through a horde of content in a location, you can narrow your search down to your desired date.

Also, if you are only interested in certain media type – YouTube videos, for example – you can filter your search for just one social media platform.

The most impressive feature of the software is the collage option. Instead of looking at YouTube and Instagram icons from a map, which can be troublesome, the collage puts them in a patchwork-like viewer.

This is ideal for viewing tweets as you can quickly read dozens of tweets at a time.

Social media displayed on the GeoFeedia collage option 


GeoFeedia is the most impressive social media collator I’ve seen on the market. The service is most suited to a breaking news environment and covering large events like festivals.

With snow covering the nation today, for example, journalists are attempting to collect UGC for their papers, websites and iPad applications. GeoFeedia seems the best tool to do this.

The tool might not be so useful in an investigative environment. Much long-form journalism is concerned with documents and elusive sources and GeoFeedia does not offer a solution to these problems. There is an exception, though.

The death of Ian Tomlinson at the 2009 G20 summit protests saw Guardian journalist Paul Lewis take advantage of social media by reaching out to the Twitter community and, as the Bevins Trust said of his investigation, ‘obtaining incontrovertible video evidence from a bystander who filmed the incident’ that Mr Tomlinson was pushed from behind by a police officer.

Tools like GeoFeedia don’t just make easier to cover live news events – but to go back to the ‘scene of the crime’ to find potential witnesses, sources – and even those involved.

5 thoughts on “A lesson from Superstorm Sandy: How to find sources using social media

  1. Pingback: A lesson from Superstorm Sandy: How to find sources using social media « Ian Silvera

  2. Pingback: A lesson from Superstorm Sandy: to find sources using social media - SandyPropertyClaim.com

  3. Pingback: A lesson from Superstorm Sandy: to find sources using social media - JerseyHurricaneLawyer.com

  4. Kev

    Really good article, always interesting to see how journalism is changing in this social media dominated world we live in.

  5. Mason Buettner

    Great review, I was unaware that programs like this existed beforehand. I am currently working towards my degree in journalism and I am surprised that programs like this haven’t been discussed in my classes at all. I look forward to trying this out the next time I need to find some sources. Thanks!


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