Taming The Social Media Firehose, Part II

In part I, we discussed some high-level attributes of the social media firehose and what is needed to digest the data. Now let’s collect some data and perform a simple analysis to see how it goes.

On March 20, 2012, there was a large 7.4 earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico. (See the USGS record.) Due to the severity of the earthquake, it was felt in many locations in Southern Mexico and as far away as 300 miles away in Mexico City.

Collecting data from multiple firehoses around a surprise event such as an earthquake can give a quick sense of the unfolding situation on the ground in the short term as well as helping us understand the long-term implications of destruction or injury. Social data use continues to evolve in natural disasters.

For this post, let’s limit the analysis to two questions:

  1. How does the volume of earthquake-related posts and tweets evolve over time?
  2. How rich or concise are social media conversations about the earthquake? To keep this simple, treat the size of the social media activities as a proxy for content richness.

In the past few months, Gnip has made new, rich firehoses such as Disqus, WordPress and Tumblr available. Each social media service attracts a different audience and has strengths for revealing different types of social interactions. For each topic of interest, you’ll want to understand the audience and the activities common to the publisher.

Out of the possible firehoses we can use to track the earthquake through social media activity, four firehoses will be used in this post:

  • Twitter
  • WordPress Posts
  • WordPress Comments
  • Newsgator (to compare to traditional media)

There are some common tasks and considerations for solving problems like looking at earthquake data across social media.  For examples, see this post on the taxonomy of data science. To work toward an answer, you will always need a strategy of attack to address each of the common data science challenges.

For this project, we will focus on the following steps needed to digest and analyze a social media firehose:

  1. Connect and stream data from the firehoses
  2. Apply filters to the incoming data to reduce to a manageable volume
  3. Store the data
  4. Parse and structure relevant data for analysis
  5. Count (descriptive statistics)
  6. Model
  7. Visualize
  8. Interpret

Ok, that’s the background. Let’s go.

1. Connect to the firehose. We are going to collect about a day’s worth of data. The simplest way to collect the data is with a cURL statement like this,

curl –compressed -s -ushendrickson@gnip.com

This command opens a streaming HTTP connection to the Gnip firehose server and delivers a continuous stream of JSON-formatted, GZIP-compressed data from the stream named “pt1.json” to my analysis data collector. If everything goes as planned, this will collect data from the firehose until the process is manually stopped.

The depth of the URL (each level of …/…/…) is the RESTful way of defining the interface. Gnip provides a URL for every stream a user configures on the server. In this case, I configured a streaming Twitter server named “pt1.json.”

A more realistic application would ensure against data loss by making this basic client connection more robust. For example, you may want to monitor the connection so that if it dies due to network latency or other network issues, the connection can be quickly re-established. Or, if you cannot afford to miss any activities, you may want to maintain redundant connections.

One of the network challenges is that volumes from the firehoses changes with a daily cycle, weekly cycle and surprise events such as earthquakes. These changes can be many times the average volume of posts. There are many strategies to dealing with volume variations and planning network and server capacities. For example, you may design graceful data loss procedures or, if your data provider provides it, content shaping such as buffering, prioritized rules or rule-production caps. In the case of content shaping, you may build an application to monitor rule-production volumes and react quickly to large changes in volume by restricting your rule set.

Here is short list of issues to keep in mind when planning your firehose connection:

  • Bandwidth must be sufficient for activity volume peaks rather than averages.
  • Latency can cause disconnects as well as having adverse effects on time-sensitive analysis.
  • Disconnects may occur due to bandwidth or latency as well as network outage or client congestion.
  • Implement redundancy and connection monitoring to ensure against activity loss.
  • Activity bursts may require additional hardware, bandwidth, processing power or filter updates. Volume can change by 10x or more.
  • Publisher terms of service may make additional filtering to comply with requirement as to how or when data may be used, for example, appropriately handling activities that were deleted or protected after your system received them.
  • De-duplicating repeated activities; identifying missing activities

2. Preliminary filters. Generally, you will want to apply broad filter terms early in the process to enable faster, more manageable downstream processing. Many terms related to nearly any topic of interest will appear not only in the activities you are interested in, but also in unrelated activities (noise). The practical response is to continuously refine filter rules to exclude unwanted activities. This may be a simple as keyword filtering, or sophisticated machine learning identification of activity noise.

While it would help to use a carefully crafted rule set for our earthquake filter of the firehoses, it turns out that we can learn a lot with the two simple rules “quake” and “terramoto,” the English and Spanish terms commonly appearing in activities related the the earthquake.  For our example analysis, we don’t get enough noise with these two terms to worry about additional filtering. So, each of the firehoses is initially filtered with these two key words. With a simple filter added, our connection looks like this,

curl –compressed -s -ushendrickson@gnip.com
| grep -i -e”quake” -e”terramoto”

The “grep” command simply looks for activities with only the terms “quake” or “terramoto;” the “-i” means to do this without worrying about case.

The filter shown in the example will match activities in which either term appears in any part of the activity including activity text, URLs, tagging, descriptions, captions etc. In order to filter more precisely on, for example, only blog post content, or only tweet user profile, we would need to parse the activity before filtering.

Alternatively, we can configure Gnip’s Powertrack filtering when we set up our server with rules for restricting filtering to certain fields or volume shaping. For example, to filter on tweet based on a Twitter user’s profile location settings, we might add the rule,

user_profile_location:”Mexico City”

Or, to shape matched Tweets volume for very common terms, we might add the rule to restrict output to 50% of matched Tweets with,


For the earthquake example, we use all matched activities.

3. Store the data. Based on the desired analysis, there are a wide variety of choices for storing data. You may choose to create an historical archive, load a processing queue, and push the data to cluster storage for processing with, for example, Hadoop. Cloud-based key-value stores can be economical, but may not have the response characteristics required for solving your problem. Choices should be driven by precise business questions rather than technology buzz.

Continuing the working toward earthquake analysis, we will store activities to a file to keep things simple.

curl –compressed -s -ushendrickson@gnip.com
| grep -i -e”quake” -e”terramoto”
> earthquake_data.json

Plans for moving and storing data should take into account typical activity volumes. Let’s look at some examples of firehose volumes. JSON-formatted activities compressed with GZIP have a size of 100M Tweets ≈ 25 gigabytes.  While this takes less than 2 minutes to transfer to disk at 300 MB/s (SATA II), it takes about 6 hours at 10 Mb/s (e.g. typical congested ethernet network). Firehose sizes vary and one day of WordPress.com posts is a bit more manageable at 350MB.

Filtered Earthquake data for the Twitter, WordPress and Newsgator firehoses is only a few gigabytes, so we will just work from local disk.

4. Parse and structure relevant data. This is the point where we make decisions about data structure and tools that best support the desired analysis. The data are time-ordered social media activities with a variety of metadata. On one hand, it may prove useful to load an HBase to leverage the scalability of Hadoop, while on the other, structuring a subset of the data or metadata and inserting into a relational database to leverage the speed of indexes might be a good fit. There is no silver bullet for big data.

Keeping it simple for the earthquake data, use a Python script to parse the JSON-formatted activities and extract the date-time of each post.

import json
with open(“earthquake_data.json” as f:
for activity in f:
print json.loads(activity)[“postedTime”]

Now we can analyze the time-evolution of activity volume by counting up the number of mentions appearing in a minute. Similarly, to estimate content complexity, we can add a few more lines of Python to count characters in the text of the activity.

import json
with open(“earthquake_data.json” as f:
for activity in f:
print len(json.loads(activity)[“body”])

5. Descriptive statistics. Essentially, counting the number of earthquake references. Now that we have extracted dates and sizes, our earthquake analysis is simple. A few ideas for more interesting analysis could be understanding and identifying key players in the social network, extracting entities from text such as places or people, or performing sentiment analysis, or watching the wave of tweets move out from the earthquake epicenter.

6. Model. Descriptive statistics are okay, but well-formed questions make explicit assumption about correlation and/or causality and–importantly–are testable.  The next step is to build a model and some related hypothesis we can test.

A simple model we can examine is that surprise events fit a “double-exponential” pulse in activity rate. The motivating idea is that news spreads more quickly as more people know about it (exponential growth) until nearly everyone who cares knows. After saturation, the discussion of a topic dies off exponentially (analogously to radioactive decay). If this hypothesis works out, we have a useful modelling tool that enables comparison of events and conversations between different types of events and across firehoses. To learn more about the attributes and fitting social media volume data to the double exponential, see Social Media Pulse.

7. Visualize. Finally, we are ready to visualize the results of earthquake-related activity. We will use the simple tactic of looking at time-dependent activity in Figure 1. Twitter reports start arriving immediately after the earthquake and the volume grows to a peak within minutes. Traditional media (Newsgator) stories peak about the same time and continue throughout the day while blogs and blog comments peak and continue into the following day.

Twitter Reaction to Earthquakes

8. Interpret. Referring to Figure 1, a few interesting features emerge.  First, Twitter volume is significant within a minute or two of the earthquake and peaks in about half an hour. Within an hour, the story on Twitter starts to decay. In this case, the stories natural decay is slowed by the continual release of news stories about the earthquake. Users continue share new Tweets for nearly 12 hours.

The prominent bump in Tweet volume  just before 1:00 UTC is the result of Tweets by the members of the Brazilian boy-band “Restart,” who appeared to be visiting Mexico City at the time of the earthquake and came online to inform their fanbase that they were okay. The band’s combined retweet volume during this period added a couple thousand tweets to the background of earthquake tweets (which also grew slightly during this period due to news coverage).

While it is not in general the case, traditional media earthquake coverage  (represented by the bottom graph of the Newsgator firehose) peaks at about the same time as Tweet volume.  We commonly see Tweet volume peaking minutes, hours and occasionally days before traditional media.  In this case, the quake was very large attracting attention and pressure to answer questions about damage and injuries.

WordPress blog posts about the earthquake illustrate a common pattern for blog posts — that they live on a daily cycle. Notice the second wave of WordPress posts starting on around 9:00 UTC.  Blogs take little longer to peak because they typically contain analysis of the situation, photos and official statements.  Also, many blog readers choose to check in on the blogs they follow in the morning and evening.

A couple of comments on the topic of content richness… As you might have guessed, Tweets are concise. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, but average in the mid 80s.  Comments tend to be slightly longer than Tweets at about 250 characters. Posts have the widest range of sizes with few very large posts (up to 15,000 words). Posts also often contain rich media such as images or embedded video.

From our brief analysis, it is clear that different firehoses represent different audiences, a range of content richness and publisher-specific user modes of interaction. “What firehoses do I need?” To start to answer, it may be useful to frame the comparison in terms of speed vs. content richness. Stories move at different speeds and have different content richness based on the firehose and the story. Your use case may require rapid reaction to the social conversation, or nuanced understanding of long-term sentiment. Surprise stories don’t move in the same ways as conversations about expected events.  Each firehose represents a different set of users with different demographics and sensibilities. You will need to understand the content and behavior of each firehose based on the questions you want to answer.

As you can see by getting your hands a little dirty, looking at how a specific event is being discussed in social media is fairly straightforward.  Hopefully I have both shown a simple and direct route to getting to answers as well as giving some useful context as to considerations for building a real-word social media application. Always remember to start with a good, well-formed question.

In Taming The Social Media Firehose,  Part III, we will look at consuming the unique, rich and diverse content of the Tumblr Firehose.