Twitter data are widely used for research purposes and are collected through a variety of methods and tools. In this guide, we’ll show you easy methods for acquiring Twitter data, with some gestures toward specific types of spatial and social analyses. More specifically, we will be acquiring unique IDs from Twitter, linking those IDs to detailed data about the tweet texts and the users, and processing that data to make it usable. Then we will be ready to generate insights from the data and analyze them with various methods and tools, such as textual and social network analysis. This process might be attractive to historians, political scientists, public policy experts, sociologists, (and even literary scholars like myself) who want to examine the Twitter discourse and human interaction surrounding historical events, and gain insight into the geographic, chronological, and social elements of twenty-first-century politics.
While this walkthrough proposes a specific workflow that we think is suitable for students and researchers of all experience levels (it was originally conceived as a workshop for first-year undergraduates at Georgia Tech), we will note points in the process where other/more advanced techniques could be substituted. Please note that this guide is aimed at beginners, and thus utilizes several GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) so as to be more accessible to more people. It is our hope that this will serve as an “on-ramp” to working with Twitter data, thus allowing more researchers insight into the geographical and social dimensions of discourse on Twitter.
First, we need to gather some data. George Washington University’s TweetSets allows you to create your own data queries from existing Twitter datasets they have compiled. The datasets primarily focus on the biggest (mostly American) geopolitical events of the last few years, but the TweetSets website states they are also open to queries regarding the construction of new datasets. We chose TweetSets because it makes narrowing and cleaning your dataset very easy, creating stable, archivable datasets through a relatively simple graphical interface. Additionally, this has the benefit of allowing you to search and analyze the data with your own local tools, rather than having your results shaped by Twitter search algorithms that may prioritize users you follow, etc.
You could, however, substitute any tool that gives you a set of dehydrated tweets. Because tweets can be correlated to so much data, it’s more efficient to distribute dehydrated data sets consisting of unique tweet IDs, and then allow users to “hydrate” the data, linking retweet counts, geolocation info, etc., to unique IDs. More importantly, Twitter’s terms for providing downloaded content to third parties, as well as research ethics, are at play. Other common places to acquire dehydrated datasets include Stanford’s SNAP collections, the DocNow Project and data repositories, or the Twitter Application Programming Interface (API), directly. (If you wonder what an API is, please check this lesson.) This latter option will require some coding, but Justin Littman, one of the creators of TweetSets, does a good job summarizing some of the higher-level ways of interacting with the API in this post.
We find that the graphical, web-based nature of TweetSets, however, makes it ideal for learning this process. That said, if you want to obtain a dehydrated dataset by other means, you can just start at the Hydrating section.
Selecting a Dataset
If you’re using TweetSets, click “Get Started” and you’ll be able to see a list of all of their existing datasets. Clicking the name of each set will give you more information on it, including its DOI, or Digital Object Identifier, which allows you to reliably locate a digital object (and learn more about how it was created).
When you have decided on the dataset(s) you want to pull from, simply check the checkbox to the left. You can choose as many as you’d like. We’ve chosen two datasets focusing on Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, two major storms of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season. As you can see, this will give us just over 30 million tweets as is.
We’ll filter the dataset to make it easier to work with, but if you’re feeling confident in your data manipulation skills, you can download the whole thing.
Filtering the Dataset with Parameters
On the parameters page, you have the option to limit your dataset by the tweet text content, hashtags used, mentions made, users who posted the tweets, users who are being replied to, the tweet type (original, quote, retweet, or reply), the timeframe during which the tweets were posted, or if they contain things like embedded images or geotags.
As you can see above, we’ve chosen to limit our dataset by two parameters. First, we want tweets that mention @realDonaldTrump and second, we want tweets that have geotags or location information. This should give us a good view of who is talking about President Trump in these datasets, and where they are located. You can imagine this kind of data would be good in analyzing how discourse around disasters forms both at ground zero and more broadly.
Once you have filled in your desired parameters, you have three options to proceed. “Preview” will give you a sample of the tweets based on your parameters, and, conveniently, the number of tweets your current parameters will return. As you can see, the two parameters we chose have the added benefit of winnowing down the dataset from over thirty million tweets to just over five thousand: much more manageable. This option is very helpful to make sure you are constructing a dataset that will work for your purposes before you actually go and download a bunch of data. With more advanced tools, you usually have to download and hydrate your data before being able to figure out what is in it.
The “Create Dataset” option will freeze the parameters and create an exportable dataset. “Start over” will reset your parameters and also return you to the dataset selection page.
Exporting the Dataset
To continue on, press “Create Dataset”, at which point you will need to provide a name. This distinguishes this dataset from others you create on the site, so make it something descriptive.
Now, you have the option to export (or not) four different aspects of data: by tweet IDs, mentions, top mentions, and top users. We’ll grab all of them and show you a few ways to work with them. This is also good because, regardless of where and how you get your data from Twitter, you will probably encounter data that looks like one of these files.
Now that you have a set of tweet IDs, you can hydrate the file using the DocNow Hydrator, a free, open-source piece of hydration software found on GitHub. On this page, scroll past all the source files to the bottom, where you can find prebuilt versions of the software. Select the correct version for your machine and install.
You will also need a Twitter account to get a Twitter API key, which essentially authorizes you to download tweet data from Twitter. Once you have an account, you can get the key under the Settings on the Hydrator. Doing so will send you to a link asking you to authorize the Hydrator; authorize the app to continue.
After you have authorized the Hydrator, you need to upload the dataset. Under the “Add” menu tab, click “Select Tweet ID File”. This will open your OS file directory where you need to find the unzipped tweet-id file. You can find in in the files you downloaded from TweetSets (if you’re not using TweetSets, you will still need a dehydrated document with a series of Tweet IDs). You can see below that this looks like a series of 18 digit ID numbers, each of which corresponds to a specific tweet on Twitter, and that the Hydrator will link with the tweet itself, along with a bunch of associated metadata.
Once you have found the right file, upload it to the Hydrator.
Once you have loaded the Tweet ID file, you should see the file path populate in the Hydrator, as well as an overview of the number of tweets detected.
You will need to create a name for your hydrated file, but can ignore the rest of the fields on this screen. Click “Add dataset,” and you will be taken to a screen where you can begin the hydration. To start the hydration, click “Start”. This will prompt another window asking for a name and location to save the hydrated tweets. The program will produce a .json file by default. We’re going to use a .csv format instead to ensure that the file can be easy read by excel or other spreadsheet programs. “CSV” stands for comma-separated values, a non-proprietary file format that uses commas to separate or delimited values in a table. This simple delimiting practice enables a wide variety of programs to translate data in this format. We can do this by clicking on the “CSV” button in the Hydrator after the hydration has completed. Appending “.csv” to the end of the filename you create will also help spreadsheet software recognize and understand the file.
At this point, your data has gone from the long list of single tweet IDs to a robust, multi-dimensional dataset in .json format. Pressing the “CSV” button will allow you to save it as a CSV instead, which you should do for the purposes of this walkthrough.
Outputs and How to Use Them
Each tweet now has lots of useful metadata, including the time created, the included hashtags, number of retweets and favorites, and some geo info. One can imagine how this information can be used for a wide variety of explorations, including to map discourse around an issue on social media, explore the relationship between sentiment and virality, or even text analysis of language of the tweets.
All of these processes will probably include some light data work to format this dataset so that you can produce useful insights: statistical analyses, maps, social network analyses, discourse analyses. But regardless of where you go from here, you have a pretty robust dataset that can be used for a variety of academic pursuits.
You might have noticed we didn’t get any latitude/longitude location information, but we did get a “place” column with less exact, textualized location information. Non-coordinate location data needs to be geocoded, which in this case means using a geocoder to geoparse the reported locations and assign lat/long values to them. Different programs do this to greater or lesser success. Tableau, for instance, has a hard time interpolating a set of locations if it’s not at a consistent geographical level (city, state, etc.). For that reason, I generated latitude and longitude information with the Google geocoder following this Programming Historian lesson, and then inputted that information into Tableau for mapping. There’s plenty of good mapping tools out there that you can feel free to use: the key here is getting specific, accurate location information from the list of place names in the dataset.
We do, however, have a bunch of additional files that also have some interesting information. While the tweet IDs file focuses on specific tweets, the nodes, edges, mentions, and users files give information on how these tweets fit together, and all these files can be correlated to create another robust, linked dataset.
If you are unfamiliar with social network analysis, it might be worthwhile to check out one of Scott Weingart’s “Demystifying Networks” series to familiarize yourself with the basic linguistic and visual vocabularies. If you have done so, you will recognize that the TweetSets outputs show us some basic information that can be used to reconstruct a social network. The edges file shows us who is tweeting to whom; the nodes files associates user names with ID numbers; and the top mentions and users files do the same, but for the most actively mentioned and most actively tweeting users.
One Simple (Software Agnostic) Way to Link your Data
At this point, I’m going to cover a very useful data technique that can be employed in a wide variety of spreadsheet platforms (Excel, Google Sheets, Numbers, the open-source Libre Calc), for a wide variety of tasks. I have used it in myriad roles: as a banker, an academic, an administrator, and for personal use. It is called VLOOKUP, which stands for “vertical look up,” and in essence, it makes Excel or other spreadsheet programs function relationally, linking data on unique identifiers. This is not to say that Excel can now be your new SQL, but in limited cases when you need to connect two discrete spreadsheets, it’s an invaluable and easy trick. We’re going to use it to flush out our TweetSets outputs so the data can be used to create a robust and informative social network graph.
When we look at the edges file, we can see it is a series of observations, each consisting of two numbers. These are the ID numbers of Twitter users in this data set: the left column represents the “tweeter,” and the right the “mention.” For those familiar with social network analysis (SNA) parlance, these would translate to the “source” and “target.” At this point, it’s hard to glean much meaningful information from this data, though, as all we have are numbers. VLOOKUP will help with that.
When we open the file (I’ve done it in Excel, but the process is essentially identical in Numbers, Google Sheets, or other spreadsheet programs), we see that some of the longer user IDs have defaulted to scientific notation. We can fix this easily by selecting all the data, going to the format section of the home tab, and selecting “Number.” You might also see that some especially long IDs display as a series of #s. You can also fix this easily by widening the cell, which will allow the full number to display. Finally, the “Decrease Decimal” button, just under the “Number” dropdown, is useful for rendering IDs as whole numbers if they’ve defaulted as decimals. You might run into some of these issues with the other files we’ve downloaded, so keep these solutions in mind.
At this point, we just need to do some quick formatting work to prepare the sheet for the VLOOKUP. Add a row at the top of the spreadsheet, and also between the two numbers columns so we can add some labels (useful but not necessary), and space for our additional data to populate. I’ve named the columns “source,” “source name,” “target,” and “target name,” loosely following SNA conventions. You’ll also want to open the “Top Users” and “Top Mentions” spreadsheets at this time.
Now that everything is formatted, click in the cell to the right of the column on which you want to perform the VLOOKUP. I’m going to start the process with the target column because the people appearing in this column are mostly public figures, enabling me to show you my return values without worrying about privacy issues. You can start with this column or the source column: you’ll perform the process on both.
Once that’s done, we’ll need to search for the VLOOKUP formula. You can also type this out “freehand”, but looking it up will give you access to the Excel (or Sheets or Numbers) formula builder, which makes this task much easier. To do this, go to the “Formulas” tab, click “Insert Function,” and search for “VLOOKUP”.
Once you click on it, you should see a handy formula builder dialog box on the right.
Click in the “Lookup_value” field in the formula builder, then click on the letter at the top of the column of associated ID numbers. Essentially, this input is telling the software the unique ID it will use to link data in two separate spreadsheets. In my case that is column C, so I click on the letter “C” at the top of the column, selecting it in its entirety. You will see the software automatically enters the value “C:C” into the formula builder upon click.
From here, we’ll move our cursor down to the next dialog box, “Table_array”. This refers to the field of values in the second spreadsheet we want the software to reference when linking our data. Once your cursor is in the dialog box, move over to the second spreadsheet–“top-mentions” for the target column, “top-users” for the source–and click and drag to highlight the entire table. For larger datasets, all you need to highlight is the field spanning from the unique ID to the desired return value, but with our smaller dataset, that means the entire spreadsheet. When you click back to the “mention-edges” sheet, you’ll see some complex syntax has populated.
The final two inputs are easy, but I’ll take a moment to explain what they mean. “Col_index_num” tells the software what value you want it to return. We want the target name, which is in the third column of our table array, so we put the number “3”. You’ll need to adjust this as necessary with different datasets. The “range_lookup” field tells the software whether the match for the lookup value needs to be exact. “FALSE” tells it that it does.
When you click “Done”, you will see the first value populate in the cell. Note that the formula is still displayed in the formula box at the top, not the returned value. We’ll remedy this in a moment. For now, you’ll want to hover over the black box in the lower right hand corner of this cell. Your cursor should change to a black plus sign when you do. From there, click and drag the cell all the way down the column. When you get to the bottom of the sheet, you can release the mouse button, and you should see values populate for all the rows. This may take a while with larger datasets, but it’s pretty quick with this one.
You might, however, notice that instead of the usernames we’re interested in, each cell contains the formula we used to retrieve them. This can be an issue if the spreadsheet program ever loses track of the second spreadsheet: if it can’t find it, it won’t be able to return the value in the future. To remedy this, we’re going to paste the returned values into the cells rather than the formula. At this point you should already have the column highlighted, so you can press command + C (ctrl + C on Windows) to copy the column, then right click and select “Paste Special.”
Once you’ve done this, you can see the returned value is now in the formula field at the top, rather than the formula. This will prevent the CSV from “breaking” in the future. Though retaining the formula would, in theory, allow the spreadsheet to auto-update in the future, it’s probably easier to just rerun the VLOOKUP, rather than having to make sure the main spreadsheet always knows where the reference spreadsheets are located.
After repeating this process on the second column, this spreadsheet is ready to be used in a variety of social network visualizations. It will drop right in to a SNA tool like Palladio, or, with some light reformatting, into software like Gephi or Cytoscape. The VLOOKUP we did makes it so you can do the visualizations with human-legible user names, rather than rather meaningless user IDs.
At this point, you have several datasets that will work well in a wide range of digital humanities platforms and methodologies. The hydrated tweet set has qualitative geographic information you can geocode and map, timestamps you can use to build a narrative of a news cycle, tweet text you can on which you can perform natural language or discourse analysis, and other very rich data points for doing historical or civic research.
The nodes and edges information we produced is ready to be used in a wide variety of social networking, but more importantly, you can use the VLOOKUP method for a wide variety of data correlation tasks that might not warrant learning and using something like SQL. I use it all the time in my research to connect file names or unique IDs to more substantive metadata like author names, publication dates, or book titles.
While this tutorial focuses on simplified methods, it should serve as a kind of “on-ramp” to show beginners that digital research–collecting thousands of data points, preparing those data points, and doing some sort of analysis/visualizaiton of them–is within reach. In completing this lesson, you should be able to approximate many of the research results of scholars trained in digital methods, and should be much closer to enacting more advanced methods, should you choose.