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“Wouldn’t it be interesting”, I thought, “if I did a little map of where the riots are?” So, at 6 o’clock or so last night, I started to put…

London Riots
photo: Getty Images / Dan Istitene

“Wouldn’t it be interesting”, I thought, “if I did a little map of where the riots are?” So, at 6 o’clock or so last night, I started to put this map together. It quickly became clear that the one or two riot hotspots I was expecting were not, quite, how the night would progress.

Hackney was followed by Peckham, Lewisham, and Camberwell – and quickly escalated to many other areas of town. Reports – and rumour – were carried on Twitter in an almost unstoppable flow. Here’s what I learnt:

Twitter is not a reliable source: I lost count of the amount of times I was told that riots were occurring in Derby or Manchester. They weren’t, yet on Twitter they were being reported as fact, despite the Derbyshire Constabulary and Greater Manchester Police issuing denials on Twitter.

I realised that, in order for this map to be useful, every entry needed to be verified, and verifiable for others too. For every report, I searched Google (NSDQ: GOOG) News, Twitter, and major news sites to try and establish some sort of verification. My criteria was that something had to be reported by an established news organisation (BBC, Sky, local newspapers) or by multiple people on Twitter in different ways.

News media are not reliable either: The BBC for a while were reporting disturbances in Manchester (though, to the best of my knowledge, Sky News didn’t). This sparked a denial from Greater Manchester Police.

The location of disturbances broadcast were frequently wrong. Reports came about “Panasonic store” being looted in “East Ealing” – the store was actually Seba Electronics, which has a Panasonic logo on the front, and it’s in West Ealing, not East.

Many people don’t know what a reliable source is: On the map, I asked people to get in contact with a verifiable source. It’s surprising how many people think that a photograph or a video is verifiable: one compelling video sent to me last night was captioned “riots in Liverpool”, but was actually from Woolwich in London. Surprising, too, how “a friend told me” was deemed reliable enough to pass on to me (it wasn’t reliable enough for me to post).

It’s curious how few people know how to check whether the news they’re being told is verifiable. Dan Gillmor has some useful principles for media consumers. (Read the book, too – it’s a free download). I discovered it was surprisingly easy to check the veracity of claims being made on Twitter by using the internet to check and cross-reference, rather than blindly retweet.

This wasn’t possible via automation: Many tweets aren’t geo-tagged, but since I wanted to verify each one, it wasn’t necessary to ingest Twitter data into this map. Instead, it was created simply using the “My Maps” tool in Google Maps. I also wanted to ensure it wasn’t hosted on my server infrastructure, since I was unclear that my server would be able to cope: knowing that Google is fairly rock-solid was useful in ensuring that this would be visible to many people.

A geographical verified map is surprisingly useful: I had emails from a US businessman, in a hotel in London, wondering whether it was safe to go out – he had no idea where the places were on the news.

I’m glad I was able to calm his nerves, and correct some of the misinformation. It was a useful and interesting exercise. Now, let’s hope I don’t need to do that again tonight.

James Cridland is a radio futurologist and is managing director of Media UK. He blogs about the future of radio on his own website at james.cridland.net.

This article originally appeared in Media UK.

  1. I also was following the riots (particularly on the first
    night, Saturday) and getting frustrated by clearly false reports and some fake pix/videos.

    But I was also annoyed by the non-reporting by mainstream
    media of events that certainly were occurring, such as the looting that was
    taking place in Wood Green from about 0230 (as verified by the tweets of both
    Guardian and NYT journalists who were there) but which had not been mentioned at
    all in any format that I found by either the BBC or Sky when I last looked at
    0400 that morning.

    I agree with the general thrust of the article but I think
    if you want timely, verified info, the only current source is Twitter but you
    need to sort through and also understand why much of the ‘reporting’ there can
    be dross. I wrote more about this at  http://clivepower.blogspot.com/2011/08/tottenham-reporting-how-twitter-won.html

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  2. After this article (which oddly doesn’t actually link to the map!) I’ve written http://www.tweetresponsibly.net which might be of interest.

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