How journalists can use Ospriet to capture real-time conversations at conferences, events

While preparing for a SXSWi panel on design research earlier this year, I started thinking about how to engage the audience.

My fellow panelists and I wanted a way for the audience to participate in the discussion so we could keep the conversation lively and pointed. Given that so many conference attendees tweet about panels, we thought a Twitter-related tool would be the easiest way to facilitate the conversation.

We discussed how to build and implement such a tool, and after about two weeks of work, Ospriet was born. (Here’s more background on its conception and its name.) This open-source moderation tool that’s built on the Twitter API allows an audience to post and vote on questions or comments during a presentation. It’s similar to Google Moderator, but built on top of Twitter and intended for events.

Ospriet worked as we planned during SXSW (you can see the finished result here), and received some attention from Mashable. After hearing about it, some people asked if it could be open-sourced. I worked with Twitter, my employer, to release the tool under Twitter’s name, spent some time writing documentation, and in late April, published it to GitHub.

Twitter typically open-sources tools and utilities that we use to help build Twitter’s underlying technical infrastructure, but until Ospriet, we hadn’t released any sample API applications. Now we have an illustrative example of a novel but very practical way to use the API.

How Ospriet works & why I built it

Anyone with a Twitter account can participate by posting an @-reply directed toward a Twitter account dedicated for the event. The submission will be reposted to the event’s account, with attribution. Audience members can vote up the best submissions by favoriting them on the event account.

Ospriet then keeps track of all of the favorites and provides a list of the top submissions. It organizes all of these interactions and displays the information in a single interface that audience members can use on a desktop, tablet or mobile device. Alternatively, people can also participate solely through a Twitter client of their choosing by following the event account. Ospriet is a Node.js application that uses MongoDB and is intended to be hosted on nodejitsu — an easy, free node hosting service.

One of the most common questions I’ve received about the tool is why we chose to use favorites and replies, (as opposed to the more common retweet and hashtag), as the interaction mechanisms in the tool.

If someone you follow has ever attended a conference you’re not at and posted tweets or retweeted tweets from other attendees about the event, you may have experienced what Caterina Fake calls FOMO — the fear of missing out.

To ensure this tool wouldn’t cause unexpected noise, and perhaps undesired FOMO, we decided any submissions should be scoped only to those who want to see them. We implemented this by using replies to an event-specific account, instead of hashtags, as the submission mechanism.

For voting, we used favorites instead of retweets. This way, attendees weren’t retweeting tweets to all of their followers when those tweets might not be particularly relevant to them. To follow along with the event, you need only opt-in by following the event’s Twitter account.

The tool will ensure submissions are posted to the event account so you don’t necessarily have to be following others in the audience; the event account becomes the focal point for following along and voting.

How journalists can use it

I worked as a Web developer/designer at USA Today before joining Twitter and have found that I like building tools with a journalistic edge. Ospriet is no exception. While designed for real-time feedback during a conference, there are a number of ways in which journalists could take advantage of the tool.

I think the most obvious use of Ospriet would be for a Q&A session with an official who may be on air, or featured in an upcoming piece. While Ospriet was built to be used in real-time, it works equally well as a way to gather comments and questions leading up to an event. I could imagine using Ospriet to recreate events like the Town Hall event Twitter hosted last summer with President Obama.

Journalists could also use the tool later this month while covering the Olympics. They could gather commentary and feedback from viewers/attendees about an event, a particularly controversial finish or medal, etc. And they could encourage attendees at the Olympics to submit questions or comments via text message while the event is happening.

Ospriet could also be a useful tool for gathering comments and questions from readers/viewers about the upcoming presidential debates. The information journalists gather from the submissions could then potentially inform their reporting.

And, of course, journalists can use Ospriet during conferences. It could act as a meaningful feedback mechanism for organizers, presenters and attendees.

As I mentioned, Ospriet is built to use replies and favorites. But if you’re using it to cover a major event like the Olympics or elections, retweets and hashtags may be better interaction mechanisms because they’re specifically designed to spread information.

Ospriet currently isn’t designed to handle retweets or hashtags, but the beauty of open source software is that anyone can build off of it. So, go hack away!

This piece is part of a Poynter Hacks/Hackers series featuring How To’s that focus on what journalists can learn from emerging trends in technology and new tech tools.

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