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Tools and techniques for using geolocation in your next investigation

By Katie Le Dain

If you go to your iPhone and head to the privacy settings, you’ll find a switch that asks you whether you want your location services “on” or “off.”

At Friday morning’s geolocation session at the annual IRE Conference, panelists talked about how cell phones can track when this button is turned on and users openly share their location. Reporters can now use geolocation application tools, such as Banjo, Creepy and Instagram’s API to help find sources faster during investigations.

For example, Banjo collects public social media posts by location and stores them in a database. Banjo representative Stacey Epstein shared how reporters were able to use the tool during the recent Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. When the Amtrak derailment happened, the app was able to find all of the public posts from inside the train and make that information available to users. Epstein says this is useful to reporters who can then try to contact those sources directly and talk to people on the scene to understand what happened.  

Another way reporters can use geolocation information is by examining the information directly from posts. When users agree to share their location on specific apps such as Twitter and Instagram, they also share their location in the data of every photograph or tweet they post.

Investigative reporters Jack Gillum of the Associated Press and Jan Gunnar Furuly of Aftenposten in Norway said they were able to use geolocation information linked to Twitter and Instagram posts during investigations.

As an example, Gillum explained that if he posted a photo of his dog from his home, he could then go into the Instagram data and find the latitude and longitude of the location where the photo was posted. Then, if he searched for those coordinates, his house would appear on Google maps.

Gillum used this tool during an investigation on Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock’s spending habits, mapping his Instagram posts and flight records as one part of his data set. He also reminded everyone that while this information can be useful, reporters must analyze multiple data sets and always go back to other sourcing to complete thorough investigations.


Katie Le Dain is pursuing her master's degree in journalism and public affairs at American University. She currently works as a Graduate Researcher at the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

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