A new trick for old dogs and reporters using Twitter

Or at least it was new to me when I heard this yesterday. News reporters in “legacy” media who are besieged by predictions that technology is eating their livelihood can be forgiven for being sceptical about techno-hype which lauds new gizmos for being ingenious without actually asking if they do anything useful.

Here’s a smartphone app that might help solve a problem which has been faced by anyone who has ever been parachuted into an unfamiliar area on a breaking story. How do you find people with knowledgeable opinions on the event/issue/disaster, and find them quickly?

I heard about this at the World Editors Forum from Justin Arenstein, who instanced the use of layar.com to find quotable people with the example of reporters arriving in a small South African town to report the failure of the local authority to keep the public water supply flowing. Layar, a Dutch startup which is in the “augmented reality” (or AR) business, overlays extra information on what your smartphone sees and is often used by travellers to discover more information about, say, a building. The bit that caught my attention is called “Tweeps Around”.

With the app turned on, you can walk down the street or scan a room and your phone will find people who have been tweeting. It will, Justin said, locate the phone of the tweeter within a distance of three or four feet – easily accurate enough for a knock on the door and request for an opinion. The sending of a Twitter message in the first place, a public act, eliminates any concern that they’re going to object to at least being asked to expand on their tweet.

It’s not a magic bullet: the competitive edge evaporates if everyone does it. Carelessly used or overused, it would be liable to bias reporters to quoting people who are mouthy self-publicists at the expense of people who might actually know.

But I can think of times in my reporting life when it would have been very handy. A proportion of new technology offers you stuff you don’t need or want. That seems to me to be something genuinely useful. I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has actually used Layar to do this. Arenstein told me later that he knew “hardly anybody” who had used the app this way for journalism.

Update 3/6/13: Two useful observations came when I tweeted this post. Marc Blanc-Settle said that the app Banjo might to do the same thing. Iain Martin rightly said that the usefulness of the Layar app would depend on how many tweeps allowed Twitter to show their geo-location.

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