Science + Technology

New UCLA project streams Twitter updates from Egypt unrest on digital map of Cairo

Today we are all Egyptians. 
—Thursday, Feb. 3
My camera is stolen, my body is bruised and my eye is still black and blue, but I've never felt better in my life. 
—Friday, Feb. 4
Together we stand, divided we all fall. 
—Saturday, Feb. 5
As thousands of Twitter updates like those above continue to pour out of Cairo amid the political unrest, a new UCLA computer mapping program is allowing the rest of the world to easily eavesdrop on the riveting turmoil.
"HyperCities Egypt" streams and then archives tweets from protesters in Cairo who are taking part in the pro-democracy push that has captured the world's imagination since Jan. 25.  
"You just let the program run, and you almost feel like you're there," explained Yoh Kawano, a member of the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities program, who built the program's interface. "It collects tweets live from Cairo and displays them in real time on a map."
Subtitled "Voices from Cairo through Social Media," the program displays a new tweet every four seconds over a digital map of Egypt's capital. Because it gathers tweets from those who have enabled Twitter's "add location" function, the program also maps the precise location in Cairo from which they were sent. And the Twitter users' avatars — often photos of the protesters themselves — accompany the poignant messages, providing a moving immediacy to the experience.
The program is a feature of UCLA's HyperCities, a collaborative research and educational platform for exploring the layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment. Examples include a program that allows visitors to explore ancient Rome and one that presents 800 years of Berlin's history. Unlike most of HyperCities' other features, "HyperCities Egypt" is not used to delve into deep history.
To experience the program, visit Please note: The program was built to run on Internet Explorer 8 but also works on Firefox 3.6, Chrome and Safari.
"HyperCities Egypt gives users a sense of living — and reliving — history," said Todd Presner, the brainchild behind HyperCities and a professor of Germanic languages and literature, digital humanities, and comparative literature.
In addition to streaming the tweets, the "Hypercities Egypt" program is archiving these historic messages, going back to Monday, Jan. 30, the last date for which back-tweets were available when the team started building the program. The feature allows users to retrieve messages by time and date. 
Because Twitter does not make archived messages permanently available, after a certain point these windows onto history would have been lost to the general public, said David Shepard, the HyperCities team leader and a UCLA doctoral candidate in English.
UCLA's HyperCities project also includes a similar archive of social media communications from the civil unrest that erupted around Iran's 2009 presidential election. "The Tehran Election Protests" features more than 800 YouTube videos, Twitter feeds, Flickr photographs and other forms of documentation, all organized chronologically. The result is the largest day-by-day, hour-by-hour — and sometimes even minute-by-minute — Web documentation of the election protests in Iran.
"It all really started with us saying, 'We did Iran — should we try Egypt?'" said Kawano, UCLA's campus geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator and a lecturer at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
The "HyperCities Egypt" group hopes the resource will draw historians, political scientists and scholars in media studies and communication for many years to come, Shepard said.
"We want scholars to be able to piece together the action as it unfolded," he said. "Imagine if the French Revolution had had social media. That's the kind of record we hope to build here."
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