Whooly turns Twitter into real-time community connector

FUSE Labs has a whole new way for people to explore their communities and neighborhoods.

Or rather, a “Whooly” new way.

Shelly Farnham and Andres Monroy-Hernandez, researchers with FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research (MSR), have created Whooly (HOO-lee), a Twitter aggregator that lets people know what’s happening in their neighborhoods in real time. Released in beta today, Whooly will continue to evolve based on feedback from users. For now, the Whooly research project is focused on various neighborhoods in King County, Washington (which includes Seattle and Redmond).

So how does it work?

Essentially, Whooly automatically discovers, extracts, and summarizes hyper-local Twitter content from communities based on mentions of local neighborhoods and relevant keywords from tweets and profiles. The content is seamlessly organized by neighborhood for a personalized and interactive experience. “It’s a news-slash-community tool for people in urban areas,” Monroy-Hernandez said.

Whooly informs people of things like a neighborhood parade or an ambulance that just screamed past their front door, he said, all at the hyper-local—or most spatially nearby—level.

“One of the most common scenarios is for crises or emergencies or acute events,” he said. “This allows you to find more information,” like shelter locations or power outages in real time.

Social media already plays that role now to some degree, such as during Superstorm Sandy, when people learned through social media where in New York City they could find electricity to charge their phones.

However, it’s hard for people to find out who’s talking about what in their local areas unless they are tracking hashtags, Monroy-Hernandez said.

What Whooly hopes to do, he added, is to make those conversations more visible and accessible to more people.

Farnham, the lead researcher on the Whooly project team, agrees.

“If you can get people to talk about communities they care about, they are more likely to participate, like in community rallies or in street-cleanup days,” she said.

Revolution spurs a movement

The research behind Whooly is focused on encouraging community engagement and was largely inspired by Monroy-Hernandez’s recent work in civic media. His research into Twitter-fueled movements such as Egypt’s Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated how both used social media to connect people and unite them with a common voice. Monroy-Hernandez said both were self-organized movements, but neither had a central authority.

Based on these movements, he and Farnham incorporated their findings to create Whooly, which they think could kick off a movement of social media tools that will help invoke civic engagement, as well as keep people informed about happenings in their neighborhoods and towns.

“Through social media tools, you can engage large numbers of people who can help each other and create ad-hoc, on-demand responses to something. It can be establishing disaster relief in the wake of a hurricane, organizing a parade, or uniting neighbors to beautify a park,” Monroy-Hernandez said.

He added, “Whooly is a tool you can use as a community to achieve collective acts that will inspire positive changes in government policy.”

And Monroy-Hernandez knows about invoking positive change.

The son of political activists, he was born in Mexico City during the reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico unimpeded for more than 70 years. His parents, he said, belonged to underground organizations.

He grew up listening to his parents talking of the struggles of other Latin American nations against dictatorships.

“I grew up in an environment where it was very much encouraged to engage with my community,” he said. He remembers being six years old and attending political rallies with his parents.

Then, in high school, he found a new passion: computer science.

This led him to a computer science degree from Mexico’s Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey and later led him to Boston to work for a software company.

He quit after four years, wanting to work for something that had a bigger impact on society. He enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a master’s and a doctorate.

News occurs at the hyper-local level, said researcher Shelly Farnham, and at the local level news is often about the “who,” not the “what.” Therefore, when needing a name for their new social media tool, Farnham and team picked Whooly.

In 2011, he started working as an MSR researcher for Microsoft Research New England in Boston. While looking for a job in academia, he interviewed for a full-time research position in MSR’s FUSE Labs in Redmond.

From Beantown to the Puget Sound, the researcher never forgot he was once the child of activists.

“It was always in the back of my mind,” he said, “how to re-engage people in positive, collective action. I was always inspired by what I saw growing up, when we would go in the streets and protest.”

Whooly aims to enable activism

After 12 years in the United States, Monroy-Hernandez sees in Whooly a chance for the worlds of activism and technology to converge—and a chance for the idealism of past decades to return.

“It’s this renaissance of hope that we saw during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s coming back again and embodied in discussions that we see in technological platforms,” he said.

If Whooly grows, he predicts, it might expand beyond just Twitter and partner with nongovernmental organizations, local governments like the city of Seattle, or companies that are already empowering citizens, like YouTube.

“Our goal is not only to provide people with access to information and conversation,” said Farnham, who has worked for the city of Seattle in similar web-based projects involving at-risk teens, “but to increase it by providing them with a vehicle to make this happen. Our ultimate goal is to let neighbors be more effective together.”

While Whooly is currently aggregating Twitter information for most of King County’s neighborhoods, the research will be primarily focused on studying social media interactions and the impact for a select number of densely populated and diverse Seattle neighborhoods, including: Wallingford, West Seattle, International District, Capitol Hill, and South Lake Union.

The team will put up posters, study people’s use of Whooly, and interview users.

“We want to see if their sense of belonging to the community increases,” Monroy-Hernandez said, “and whether they find it useful.”

The researchers chose these communities based on their varying degrees of ethnicity, economic status, civic-mindedness, and social media knowledge.

There is a need for tools like Whooly, Monroy-Hernandez said. However, he is acutely aware of the need to achieve a social media balance between privacy and visibility. He saw this firsthand in his research around Mexican drug cartels where citizens using social media would anonymously alert neighbors to keep them safe.

“That balance between visibility and opacity is very difficult to figure out,” he said.

There is also sometimes a perception by some that technology has taken people away from their communities.

“There’s an interesting tension there,” said Lili Cheng, general manager of FUSE Labs. “How maybe, since it’s given us so much mobility, sometimes we interact less with the neighborhood we live in. It’s a challenge for us to think how we can make the city better through social media.”

Nevertheless, Cheng, Monroy-Hernandez, and Farnham remain optimistic that Whooly will help people get more connected with their neighbors and communities.

Whooly, Monroy-Hernandez said, will not just be another name lost in the shuffle of millions of URLs and apps, but instead the precursor for a new era of civic social media tools.

“Just like now, we have a productivity suite called Office,” he said, “or a suite of entertainment products like Xbox. In the future, it’s going to be necessary and it’s going to actually happen that there will be a lot of tools specifically for engaging in collective action.”

Farnham calls for that connection to start right here, right now. “We urge you to start experimenting with Whooly, and test it out at www.whooly.net,” she said. “As with any research project, there are plenty of kinks to iron out, but early feedback will be a critical tool to ensure we can continue to enhance and evolve this exciting research project.”

You can also follow them on Twitter at @whoolyit and provide feedback, share your neighborhood experiences, and monitor the latest updates on Whooly.

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Microsoft News Center Staff

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