Unseen Geographies and #twifi

Just over a year ago, Alex de Freitas and I collaborated to produce ‘Unseen Geographies,’ a tool to assist Alex with his research on the geography of free wifi. Alex was experimenting with Twitter as a research tool, to conduct short interviews with people about how and where they found and used free wifi. Twitter’s interface (nor that of any of the clients) was suited to what Alex wanted to do, and so we came up with a plan (in an all-night cafe near NYU, if I remember correctly), secured a small research grant from the MEIC, and built it. (It’s a private tool, so I can only share screenshots.)








Unseen Geographies:

  • uses a lovingly-crafted search string to find tweets which are very likely about the availability of free wifi in public space
  • using the Twitter API, grabs tweets which match the string and have a photo attached
  • through a private interface, allows Alex to see the most recent photos, the text of the tweet, and other metadata (including location), and gives him the ability to ‘hide’ irrelevant tweets, ‘star’ ones that are particularly relevant, and ‘reply’ to the sender
  • also offers a map view (showing only those tweets with location included), with the same functionality

It’s saved Alex a bunch of time and frustration. It’s also great for impressing his geography colleagues.

In the process of developing Unseen Geographies, we hit on another idea — which we never would have come up with otherwise. Since Alex’s search string worked so well for finding tweets that probably indicate the presence of free wifi, we figured that we could pop those onto a Google Map, and create a new way of finding probable free wifi locations. It took Alex about half a second to come up with a name: #twifi.


  • checks Twitter for tweets that have location info attached, and (using Alex’s search string) probably indicate the presence of free wifi
  • plots them on a map
  • also lists them on the side, in reverse chronological order
  • tweets fall off the list after a few weeks, recognizing that a location that offers free wifi today may not offer it next year, and also that (without assistance) there’s a practical limit to the number of points we can place on a Google map
  • but tweets that include the #twifi hashtag stick around (and are coloured blue), so that there’s a mechanism for users to intentionally place ‘trusted’ free wifi locations on the map

There a bunch more features we’d like to add, and also to make it look nicer. But I’m impressed with what we came up with in just a few hours!

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