Revealing Useful Data Via Twitter - Interview with Nate Ritter

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Nate RitterA chat with Nate Ritter (who is awesome) about Twitter, why the government needs to clean up their data, and Giving Anonymously.

Jed Sundwall: I know a lot of people have talked about it, like it's old news, but I want to know the story on how you emerged as the guy to find out about the San Diego fires on Twitter, and how that project or that experience led to the development of Hashtags.

Nate Ritter: OK, it's an interesting question because I'm going to try and take it in a little bit of a different spin than what I've done with other people. But, the basics of it are that I saw fires happening, and I wanted to, first of all, just blog about it because I was kind of a PR whore. And I wanted to be able to maybe capture a little bit of attention because I didn't think it was going to be that big of a deal when it first started. I was like, oh yeah, there were some fires; there're fires all the time in Southern California, so no big deal.

I put up one post, put out some information, some resources that I found. And then, I put up a second post just on my blog. And by the time I even did the second post, it was already starting to become kind of a bigger deal. Right after the second post, I said, well, I'm just going to start Twittering because the information can get out faster. And so, I just started taking any of the information, all the resources that I knew that people were talking about and aggregating them and just republishing them on Twitter. And then, I had some people asking what was happening, and so, I just responded with anything I had available.

So, kind of how that turned into a bigger deal than what I expected was that people saw that as such a valuable information source that they started talking about, "Hey, Nate Ritter's using Twitter to publish the information live, real time." And Twitter was perfect for that because it was short, sweet and to the point. And so, when people started talking about it, it kind of just did this snowball effect. People started talking about it, I started posting more, more people talked about it, I started posting more.

And it just turned into this 12-hour marathon kind of thing of mostly taking everything from radio to TV to my own hotline that I eventually set up that people could call in on, to just everything, any resources I found on the net. People were telling me about maps that were being built, data that was coming in, data sources that were coming in. And so, I just republished everything I could find, and everything people were telling me.

And so, it kind of just happened. I didn't plan it or anything like that. It wasn't something I was like ooh, this is going to be hot (ed: I assure you Nate intended no pun), I'm going to go ahead and do this. It started out just being a service to people. And it just turned into a bigger thing than what I think anybody really expected. That's kind of the basics.

Now, you used hashtags, right, the #SDFires Hashtag?

Yeah, so the way that came about was actually through Chris Messina, Factory Joe. He contacted me and said, "Hey, you're publishing a lot of information and getting some press. You should start using hashtags to contextualize everything because I was taking and prefixing everything, or trying to prefix everything with San Diego fires and I wanted it to be searchable. And I wanted people to be able to find information in the future about what was happening in the past. Just like blog posts get indexed on search engines, I figured Twitter's information would probably be searched and indexed, as well.

So, I figured this is a really good time lapse in text. And he said, "You should use a hash tag because it's shorter. You can search for it. And other people can use it as a tag, as well, tagging things like photos and videos, and whatever else is out there. And so then, we could aggregate not just twitter posts, but blog posts, photos and videos and audio, every other kind of media that's available. So, it just kind of pushed everything back into the collective. And that was the whole purpose of it, and it made it really nice and easy, too, because it's a short enough tag. With Twitter, you only have 140 characters, so the shorter the tag, the better. And it gives people context, without really having to explain everything all over again or use up a big portion of your post.

OK, so you didn't invent hashtags? In my mind, because that's when I became familiar with hashtags, I figured you had something to do with it. I thought "This is new," but then again Twitter was still fairly new at that point.

No, I didn't invent them. In fact, Chris had used them before, and I think probably a few other people have used them. But this was the first time a real world application came about that it actually made sense, and it kind of brought it into the spotlight a little bit. He had posted in posts before about trying to figure out how to group things by context on Twitter because he thought that was important. And I fully agree with him, so I just thought this is a perfect opportunity, so we'll just go ahead and use that. And it turned into that perfect thing because, then, Hashtags.org came out of that, as well as a lot of other places. And now, hashtags, they're still good in certain context. But because of Twitter's awesome search feature with Summize now, hashtags are good for certain situations where you still want to contextualize things, based on tags, but you don't always need to now.

Right. A recent interesting example of that was this earthquake we just had in San Diego. Were you here for that?

I came in [from out of town] like a couple days afterwards.

I didn't feel it. I can never feel these things.

I felt four of them before we even left, or four to six of them before we even left in May. I knew they were happening all over the place.

I never feel any of them. Everybody's always, "Oh, did you feel that earthquake?" I'm like, "What earthquake?" Anyway, I didn't feel it, but everybody on Twitter felt it. It was really remarkable. Watching it on Twitter search was awesome.

I think hashtags are still valuable for multiple word context, like San Diego fires is three different words, so I think that's still valuable because search engines usually have trouble with multiple words, unless you put them in quotes or do other things like that. There's still a purpose behind it. I just don't know how awesome it is anymore.

Right, but what did it do for Missing Children? Do you use hashtags for missing children?

No.

I'm sorry, that's just a Twitter account, right?

Yeah, Missing Children's just an aggregation. I took all the e-mail alerts that come out of MissingChildren.org for the entire nation. The e-mails come to an account that my script just looks into, finds information, follows a couple URL's, gets the information we need, and shortens it all into a post and then, gives a URL. There's no hash tag for it, though. For one, there's no room because usually, the posts take up the whole amount. And two, the context is the fact that it's missing children. So, there's not really too much context needed besides that.

And have you seen any results from that?

I don't know firsthand, whether Twitter actually helps find anybody in that regard. It's one of those things, for me right now, I'm not driving, so I don't see those alerts that happen on the freeway. So, for me to get them in a tweet still roaming around Pacific Beach (a neighborhood in San Diego), I still am mobile. I'm just not the one driving on the highways all the time. But as long as I can see that information, then at least I can keep my eyes out. So, I think it's beneficial as just another medium, not necessarily that it's the end-all. E-mails are good, RSS is good, the alerts on the highway's good, but the more the merrier.

Exactly, it's just like another channel to get that really useful information out.

Yeah.

So you feel that it's useful simply because it can exist? Even though right now there's really no way to track its efficacy?

Right.

I guess, is your assumption that since it's so low cost to do, why not just set it up?

Yeah, governments don't move fast, but we can. I'm just one person, so it took me less than a day to put a script together that did that kind of thing. The rest of the technology was already there. I just extended it into SMS text messages, basically. It was so simple to do. Realistically, it would have taken months for any governmental organization to figure out what Twitter is, whether it's useful and why should we put it on there, should be publish it, blah, blah, blah. The bureaucracy takes forever.

They don't even know. I don't know, maybe they do know now, but they didn't know what I was doing. I just took their data and put it on Twitter because it's their goal, anyways. They want to propagate that information, and I thought, well, what better way than to get that information out to a bunch of geeks who have iPhones than Twitter? Why can't we put it into a medium that we can use and that we would use all the time that I use? I would do it more for myself than I would for anybody else just because I'm interested in that kind of thing. And if I'm interested, then I'm sure there's probably maybe at least two other people in the world who are.

What other kind of data do you wish governments would free up or propagate though a system like Twitter? Anything like a dream of yours?

Well, I think it could have been used pretty easily for things like school shootings and stuff like that, any kind of emergency that happens within the context of a particular location is probably extremely valuable. So like, for instance, I think it's L.A. Fire Department uses it. I think that's valuable because there's a lot of people who are interested in that kind of thing.

I think even more valuable than that would be if I could subscribe to a particular type of news from a particular geographic area. So, I want any information on like carjackings within a five-block radius of my house or stolen cars. I think that would be interesting. Those kinds of things you can do a lot with, but if you know that there's a rash of stolen cars happening in your area, and you own a car, a Honda's that's getting broken into just like everybody else's, you're going to do something different. It's going to change your behavior.

And I think that's kind of the point. If we're not changing the behavior, then there's really no point to doing anything. There's lots of government data that's available publicly, but it's in such a crappy way or it's in a way that most people actually don't even know exists, but it would change our behavior if we did. That's the kind of stuff that I think is a perfect candidate for Twitter.

That's beautiful. There's so much data out there that could change people's behavior, if they were getting it in a timely manner.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, case in point right now, I'm looking not at actually purchasing a house yet, but I'm looking at all the house values. I'm really interested in certain neighborhoods. And not that this is governmental data, but real estate data. Some of it is government data, though, because they have to do taxes. The counties display that information.

So, on housing sales, what's just been recently sold in a particular area that I'm interested in, as a real estate investor, I think that would be extremely good information. It would change where do I look at housing, what do I look for? I can click on information like "Oh! A three-bedroom for $150,000 just sold in Hillcrest, holy crap!" That would change my view of where I'm looking for new information. And it would change my behavior as to where I'm going to purchase or when I'm going to purchase, even, if I see the trends going up. And you can aggregate that data pretty easily. If I can get instant notification that something just went on sale and I'm interested in a four-plex, then there's a whole other bit of information. I can be on top of that before anybody else even looked at the website.

What thoughts do you have on how feeding this data into Twitter could be used by social benefit organizations? Do you have any thoughts on that?

I think Missing Children is the perfect example of that. And I mentioned this at my talk at NetSquared in San Francisco, I think it was late last year, that the non-profits that are available, the NGO's, those organizations that exist out there, they have the ability, they have all kinds of data that they're trying to promote for social good. I don't even know what that data is. But that's the problem, isn't it? We don't know what the data is and how it can change lives.

So, I think part of the deal with Twitter is that it can be used on kind of two different levels. One, you have a means of propagating the fact that the data exists because you have a whole lot of people who are technology influencers that are all on Twitter. And these people talk about those kinds of accounts, and they talk about the fact that L.A. Fire Department and the Red Cross are now Twittering. It's a big deal. So, the fact that the data or whatever the cause is that that non-profit is looking to promote, the fact that the data exists and is available is one big thing, and it's getting that information out to people who will talk about it.

The other thing is if it's timely information, Twitter's perfect for that, too. So, if it's information that could be used to save people's lives or warn people that there's earthquakes or floods, or that there's Tsunami's coming, certain weather patterns, whatever, those are all the applicable things. And I think, personally, that emergencies and natural disasters are probably the primary thing that Twitter could be used the most for, it would probably be the most beneficial, just because it's so fast, it's so timely, and it's so important.

But, it's always going down!

(laughs) Yeah, I know, and that's the big problem. But, not to say we couldn't come up with another solution, but Twitter does have this massive acceptance coming along. Maybe part of the solution would be if the government actually wanted to use Twitter as a method of disseminating information, that they actually fund Twitter, they subsidize it as a response mechanism.

That's really interesting. It's funny, I study this all the time now, how the government uses social media. And the White House has a Twitter stream, the State of California does, the State of Utah does, Kentucky does. All sorts of State and Federal level government organizations are using Twitter, but they still don't quite know how because they're either repurposing blog posts or press releases, things like that. Whereas, you're right, it's timely information that people need to have. I don't really care to hear that much from the White House, but if there were a big deal that came down the wire, then put that on a Twitter, that's what makes sense.

Yeah, absolutely.

And that's where social benefit would be. The thing is, it's funny that you're describing emergency stuff because it's not something that ordinarily, the social benefit world takes care of or has assumed responsibility for.

Yeah, but it affects us all like immediately.

And it's interesting that this technology has given rise to people like you, socially minded technologists, who are like, "OK, well here's a gap that we can fill." Because isn't that what social benefit's all about? It's organizations coming together to fill gaps that somehow haven't been filled.

Right, and that's kind of actually the point of why I did the Missing Children one. Part of it was hey, we've got this information, why not put it out there? I think it's useful. But, the other part was to actually say, "Hey, Missing Children people, look at what you can do with this, look how many more things you can do if you just publish your information here, and then, marketed the fact that you were here." Because the medium already has, Twitter already has a decent amount of exposure right now, and they're getting more and more. So, use a medium that people are going to have in their hands all the time. Why use text messages that cost you five cents every time you send one out to five million people? Use a medium that people are paying for. And they're happy to, that's the thing. It's not like they don't want that information.

I don't know, part of the point of Missing Children was to make it known that there's information that the government or other social advocates in big organizations, there's mediums to use to get that information out faster and more efficiently and more cost effective than their current methodologies. I think there's definitely been a good response into that realm because I had somebody contact me, who works with governmental organizations and who saw Missing Children and some of the other work that I did. And you know, they're just tiny little scripts. They don't do much, and I don't really advertise them much, but it's just to kind of make a point. And she noticed that, and she contacted me and said, "Hey, we do all the different applications for the government and we're always trying to push the fact that they need to release some of this data in new ways."

And she asked if I would be interested in coming and talking to their clients, which is basically, the government organizations, about what I did with Missing Children and why. And so, that's nice that somebody who has influence within the government is actually looking at that kind of thing. But, it's going to take the government, themselves, to make that change. So, I was just basically trying to make a point. And I think it's possible. I mean, I don't care to make a profit off that by any means, but I just want to say it's possible, and look at what you guys can do. It's really easy. It takes a day of an average programmer's time to create something that's meaningful and useful. And then, you just take it and publish and market. And you'll get mass acceptance that way.

That's fantastic! I think you're totally right. It's just a matter of getting the right people's attention.

Right.

And time. You're right, governments move slowly, but so do the masses, as well. The government's like a slow reflection of what the masses are doing to be able to catch up to the masses. But we're geeks, you know, we're already sort of ahead of the curve, anyway. Can you talk to me a little bit about Giving Anonymously?

Yeah, absolutely. So, Giving Anonymously is the brainchild of the director, Lionel Thompson, who lives in Washington State. He and I have been good friends for a while, and he and his wife came up with this brilliant idea and wanted to put it together. The whole concept behind Giving Anonymously is that there is a social pressure or a social issue when it comes to giving to people, specifically, money. So, kind of the case study would be, say, I knew that you were having problems and I wanted to give to you as a friend, there's always this feeling of the need for reciprocation. And that's not the point a lot of times. It's just I want to give to you and I don't want anything back. I don't care for anything back at all. It's not a debt; it's a gift. Because there's so many people who, like you said, there's these people who are entrepreneurs or developers or whatever who are now socially conscious and making a big deal out of this, there's this huge effort to just give and not, necessarily, ask for anything in return. And that goes for labor and everything else.

So, what Lionel and his wife came up with and what my wife and I have all put our heads together and produced, is an application, where people can use a third party, give money to a person, specifically, an organization giving anonymously basically writes a check by writing your name and address, and I give a gift through a credit card transaction. Giving Anonymously doesn't take any overhead. The only overhead that there is is whatever the transaction costs are. So, if I give you $100.00, it costs another $4.00 to do the transaction and that's it. Giving Anonymously takes that $100.00 and writes a check, and then, calls you and says, "There's a check coming. Don't throw it away, it's not fake, it's a real deal. There's a check and a basket, a gift kind of thing that's coming in the mail."

When you get it, what happens is you call back to an 800 number, punch in a PIN code, and basically, you leave a message and say, "Thank you." And that message, then, gets turned into an MP3 and e-mailed back to the person who originally gave. Giving Anonymously sits in between the donor and donee. So, you end up with the ability to give without the social pressure of reciprocation. That, hopefully, is going to be the tip of the iceberg for what is planned to end up with a major organization that will be non-governmental, non-profit, hopefully affecting millions and millions of people. But, this is just the beginning, this is just one application that's just starting. It'll end up with schools and all kinds of good stuff.

What do you mean? End up with people being able to give to schools or . . .?

People attending schools for free. People giving lectures for free. People working on social and political problems. Hopefully, some of the greatest minds in the world coming together to do that. But, all being part of this new wave of giving, if you will.

So, the idea would be like I would want to give somebody a scholarship to go to a school, anonymously?

Yeah, I mean, you definitely could. In the end, we hope to have a major organization that will, basically, run on people's benevolence, but not in the way that we think of right now. Not necessarily by just donating to a "good cause," but donating to specific people.

OK, I see what you're saying. And if I donate anonymously, if I give anonymously to a certified non-profit, it's tax-deductible? Is there any way I can get a receipt of that?

At this point, we don't. We've gone through the IRS channels and everything. The next stage that we'll probably most likely go into, at least we're looking at, is actually partnering with organizations like the Red Cross and a few other places, but partnering with organizations that they would be the people to kind of identify those people who are in need. And that way, a donation could still go through and you would get the tax deduction. But, it has to go through a process before it's shown that this person or this group falls under that category of getting a deduction for it. So right now, there's no tax deduction, but that's something that we're moving towards.