Saturday, May 4, 2013

How to go deep on the Internet

by Paula Christine Schuler

Mike Horvit of Investigative Reporters and Editors moves quick delivering simple techniques

Mike Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors launched into rapid-fire delivery of numerous website tools and examples of how they could be used.  

Immediately he suggested the following strategies for online investigation sanity: 
  • Use 3 to 4 key words to guide the search
  • Force yourself to work in a specific period of time
  • Restrict sites visited to those relevant to the story
When he launched off a barrage of data tools, people finders and resources for finding public data that should not be public, he did not seem to breathe until he said, "Here is the real issue." 

He said Google is searching something called the surface web. He said, "It misses 80-85 percent of all the info available online."

The entire database of is not available on Google because of how traditional search engines work in contrast to users clicking links inside of websites.  

He said deep web is a term that describes all the databases and information sites online that do not show up on the traditional searches.

After learning the hard way taking volunteers from his audiences, he has begun to use himself as the lab rat for demonstrating how these tools can discover information about people and organizations. 

One story related an incident where professors from a big name university were posting conversation remarks and confidential information of students online and the information could be found publicly by doing advanced searches. He encouraged journalists to take a curiosity tour through Google advanced searches once a month to see what might be discovered. 

He said major networks use social media to find sources for major events before their reporters can arrive with cameras. Social media applications and mobile technology open portholes to interviews faster than ever.  Examples of this exist in the major network coverage of the Boston bombing incidents.

He wanted to bring tools and demonstrate the thought processes that could empower journalists to get around the surface and clutter of the media and move into the discovery of content in simple searches that could lead to big stories. 

Horvit rolled out website after website grouped into how the sites could be used. 

Websites included: 
  • with a great link called "Who is John Doe?" which leads the user into various angles of how to find and investigate people.
  • is a shocking statistical site and has links to search the federal bureaucracy by topic instead of by agency, he said.
  • can be used to track every contract with the federal government including job duties, contract number, purpose searchable by state and congressional district. Also useful for searching any federal grant recipient.  It can be used to gain information before interviewing a source, empowering a journalist to get through public information veils more quickly. He said it is not completely up to date because source documents are required only once a year for some of the data.
  •  is a website that tracks the voting records of the U.S. Congress and matches them with any data available on the influence of special interest monies on those votes.
  • is the Internet Public Library, established by and for research librarians. 
Websites specifically useful for investigating people include:
  • can search by an email address, what the person's likely website user names would be.  He said, "Think about the ways that people exist online and search for them that way."
  •  is helpful when looking for former employees.
Searching social media by geographic location has become useful in fun and serious uses:
  • is useful for tracking social posts in a mapped area and tracking events or people nearby.
  • proves useful for on-the-ground reporting before network cameras can arrive. 
  • is a cell phone tool that proved useful in the Arab Spring and other major events.
Twitter tools:
  • Foller.Me is a Twitter analytic tool that helps tweeters see who is mentioning them the most. It analyzes hashtags created by the user and when the user tweets or does not and helps a user figure out when the most likely time would be for a possible live connection with another Twitter user.
  • SnapBird helps search Twitter history. 
Horvit said he will be emailing to the conference attendees a list of these and more tools he did not have the time to discuss.

And then, he took another breath.  

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