It started out merely as a pursuit for a passing grade and wound up getting the attention of Occupy Wallstreet organizers and web surfers as far away as India and Pakistan.
Two University of Cincinnati students were simply aiming for the approval of their professors at the annual College of Applied Science Senior Design Fair. So when a whirlwind of curiosity surrounded their innovative attempt at a data-gathering prototype, the novice inventors were more than ecstatic to share their story of a blooming success.
Their story begins with a simple, and common, question: "What's happening?" It's the question that Alex Padgett and Billy Clifton worked to answer with their innovative social media tool, "The Tweetographer."
From university students in search of a good place to party to event-trackers trying to get information to the public, the question can be simple and straightforward or layered with complexity. The students' application organizes information gained from Twitter to tell people where and when events are happening across a broad spectrum.
Originally inspired by CityBeat
, the two inventors explain that the idea for Tweetographer stemmed from the desire to keep people informed about their surroundings.
"Public conversation can be used to figure out a general consensus," Clifton says.
The fourth-year computer science majors developed the prototype in six months for their senior design demonstration. Originally, it was conceived as a fundamental proof of concept, but skyrocketed from there, Clifton says.
"Once we began to work with the data, we recognized its natural potential to be sorted, organized and analyzed," Clifton says.
Currently, the web application is still raw and basic. With no eye-candy for visual slickness, it's pretty utilitarian: it displays a map and calendar on a bland webpage.
"We plan on dressing it up and putting some features on it and putting the full project out on the web for free," Clifton says.
Yet the possibilities to make it a full-fledged project are clear, and according to the two students, people are excited about the Tweetographer. After the initial presentation at Tangeman University Center for their senior design fair, they were asked to give a demonstration to the Institute of Electronic Engineers.
From there, a flurry of tweets and blog posts spread word about the visionary web application. Occupy Wallstreet representatives were interested in utilizing the tool for their movement and the information has been shared as far as India and Pakistan.
"We did a few demonstrations and it caught fire and everyone loved it," Clifton says. "So people asked us to keep working on it and that's what we're going to do."
Their journey to a solid prototype wasn't an easy ride. There were a few problems connecting with the Twitter network immediately, and other issues arose, Padgett says.
With the typical glitches and spam issues, Padgett and Clifton simply focused their attention on one issue at a time.
"We haven't come across any glitches that we haven't been able to resolve," Padgett says.
Because Padgett graduates after the current academic quarter and begins a full-time job, Clifton has dedicated his efforts to perfecting the prototype. He hopes to go public with a working application by the first of January.
"Alex and I hadn't been in touch for months after the completion of our senior design project, so I continued to work on data mining techniques," Clifton says. "I've spent many nights and weekends designing a more complex engine that can grab information about any topic that I tell it to."
The engine is incredibly sophisticated and can be used to power many different applications, including the Tweetographer, Clifton says. He uses this analogy: he's constructing an engine that can be put under the hood of any car. He hopes to incorporate other social media networks into his application, including Facebook and LinkedIn. The updated prototype should also allow users to find happenings on a smaller scale — even as small as the community of the University of Cincinnati.
"There's no reason it can't be scaled down to the size of a campus like UC," says Clifton. "This would be a great way to inform students about welcome week events or even campus safety alerts."
The safety applications alone could prove invaluable. "If someone tweets that they just got robbed on Jefferson Avenue, the Tweetographer would pick that up and inform others about it instantly," he says.
With big ideas and bigger potential, Clifton insists that the project's foundation won't change. Designed as a community service, the Tweetographer will remain just that. "If there is a non-intrusive way to make a revenue off of it, then great. I'll never make people pay to use the service, though," Clifton says.
A self-proclaimed social media enthusiast, Clifton finds the diversity and original content of social media sites to be a beautiful thing. No one has to be a Webmaster to contribute to the authenticity and real opinions of the internet, Clifton says. "As long as there is social media fuel, this engine will thrive and the options will be endless."
By Kara Driscoll
Kara Driscoll is a freshman journalism major at the University of Cincinnati. An earlier version of this story appeared in the University of Cincinnati's student newspaper, The News Record.