2016 Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism winner

Nearby Tipping

Judges comments

All of the finalists found ways to make journalists more capable, but this one makes them more informed.

About the Project

Through the Breaking News app, we connect individuals with breaking stories that are uniquely important to them.

Much of that connection is made through geolocation. The most impactful breaking news is the story that’s happening right next you.

For example, users can tap the “nearby” tab to see breaking news near their physical location, wherever they go. These are stories published from our editors, automated data (i.e. USGS earthquakes) and tweets from local partners that we geolocate through our platform. Users also receive “proximity alerts” notifying them when a big story breaks near their location.

In May we launched a third geolocation feature called “nearby tipping,” which is the focus of this entry.
Our goal is to answer the question, “What just happened near me?” You may see a column of smoke or hear lots of sirens. Sometimes you’ll find it deep in social media or see it later on the news. But the fastest way to know is hearing from people around you.

Nearby tipping is a lightweight community built around proximity. Think of it, roughly, as Waze for breaking news. Users are encouraged to help others nearby by letting them know when they see a breaking story. These are simple observations like police activity, fire, accident, hazard, protest, flooding, earthquake and “lots of sirens.” They’re clearly disclosed as tips, not verified news reports.

All it takes is a few taps. Tap the tip button and select a category like “power outage.” The tip is automatically posted in the “nearby” tab to users in the immediate vicinity, along with the location where it was posted. By combining our updates, Tweets, data and now geo tips into a single nearby feed and map, users are often able to quickly make sense of what’s happening around them.

(The two URLs we submitted are Medium posts explaining the feature with screen grabs.)

We first tested the idea in our Apple Watch app. Last year, we added a button that said, “See news nearby? Tap to tip us.” When you tapped, it sent us a lat/long, and our editors searched social media for stories near that location.

We received more tips than we could process, and we suddenly realized that users shouldn’t be tipping us, but tipping EACH OTHER in the same area, including a little more information to make it helpful. We launched it in the Breaking News app on May 12th.

Users can see tips from others nearby – they can adjust a rangefinder from 1-100 miles around them – and our editors see global tips pouring into our publishing platform. With a single click, editors can trigger geo-searches on social media around a given tip, and we can also compare those search results with social media posts from local news partners that we filter and ingest.

A surprisingly small percentage of tips are bogus. We rate-limit tips and can blacklist repeat offenders, and the “damage” has been minimal. These are simple observations, and users understand the difference.

A few more technical details:

  • Tipping is available for both iOS and Android, and each handle location differently: different permissions, granularity, updating speeds and mapping. Months of testing went into this.
  • Tips are lat/longs, but they also automatically associate with the nearest place name, so they follow the taxonomy of our platform.
  • They’re anonymized and obscured for privacy (we slightly alter the actual location)
  • They chronologically mesh with other nearby content in the same feed, dynamically responding to rangefinder adjustments.
  • The nearby feed knows when to refresh based on significant user movement.
  • Tips are mapped both at the item level (tap a tip in the “nearby feed” to see an abbreviated map) and in full map view (tap the globe in “nearby” to switch from the feed to the map).

In less than a month, we’ve received thousands of tips from nearly 90 countries so far, including places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, Russia and China — as well as 49 of the 50 states (South Dakota is a holdout!) This despite the fact tipping, in our first release, is not a central feature and has had limited promotion.

We’ve discovered more than one hundred stories, and there are two interesting outcomes so far. The first is “spikes” of similar tips within a short period of time around a specific location. For example, we received 139 earthquake tips from San Diego to LA in the moments after a modest 5.2 earthquake in the middle of the night (see screengrab we submitted; each globe is an earthquake tip). The first tips were received a few seconds after the event (unclear if they beat Twitter; we’re parsing seconds), and dozens of them appeared before USGS’ first report. Since these automatically post, nearby users knew how widely the quake was felt before the first news report. We’ve also seen spikes for wildfires, severe weather, power outages and more.

The second is isolated tips in far-flung places. For example, a user near Colombo, Sri Lanka tipped “flooding,” leading us to set up searches in the area. We found a single report from Accuweather and watched for more. Our subsequent coverage appeared in newsrooms around the world (Breaking News is monitored by most major newsrooms). In the days that followed, dozens of people lost their lives and more than 500,000 people would flee the flooding. A single user in Sri Lanka helped alert the world’s media to an important story with just a few taps.

We’re just getting started, and there’s tremendous potential in fostering a low-friction community around the shared experience of a nearby story. Geolocation will become a staple in newsgathering and coverage, and Breaking News is far ahead.