Tracking real-time impact through Twitter

12 December 2012

Alistair Brown of the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog has reported of a case in which Twitter has proven to be a useful tool in measuring impact by achieving real time engagement with the public. Dr. Helen O’Donnell of Durham University and historian Lucy Worsley were interviewed on BCC Radio 4’s Today program last week, about a journal paper written by Dr. O’Donnell on the negative perception of women drinking tea in 19th century Ireland. While the program was accompanied by a press release and was certainly a way of disseminating research, the responses from the audience via Twitter were what gave conclusive proof that Dr. O’Donnell’s journal paper had made an impact on the public.

However, tracking the twitter feeds had to be done in real time to be more effective in measuring impact. This didn’t just better reflect the immediacy of the audience’s reactions, but because Twitter does not attach a detailed time stamp on the tweets issued, it made their retrieval easier as tweets older than 7 days aren’t readily available in searchers. While programmes such as Google Custom Search for Twitter and Topsy permit users to search for old tweets, they are not that effective: keyword searches in Topsy, for example, only resulted in one tweet out of the 21 that were collected during the radio segment.

Brown suggests using the Twitter browser extension Tweetdeck to facilitate real time tracking:

Searches can be configured very easily in this: simply type the search terms, and then select “Add Column.” All results for this search will now stream down the viewing pane in real time. For this particular story, I added searches for “tea AND whisky” and “Ireland AND tea”. I also added a search for “@bbcradio4”. This would pick up any responses directly to the programme; naturally this included reactions to all items run that morning, but by watching in real time it was easy to spot the most relevant ones around the particular time slot for the tea story, again something that would be harder to do afterwards.

Researchers can also take a look at this LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog guide on using Twitter.

Also relevant may be Enrique Mendizabal’s post on the usefulness of Twitter as a research and communication tool: helping to filter, announce, search, network and argue.