Finally! A discovery engine for Instagram that lets you search by date and location

propublica sinatra

Instagram isn’t just an app for sharing candid photos anymore, and it’s realized its power as a source for breaking news. Professional reporters and citizen journalists alike have used Instagram to cover events like the Boston Marathon bombings and the Sandy Hurricane, as well as the Super Bowl and the presidential election. While we’ve been increasingly using it for these purposes, Instagram has yet to introduced a feature for specific search beyond its mobile-only hashtag and user discovery tab. There are third party Web tools to help find photos by hashtag or user as well, but nothing that complements its use as a news source. 

Fortunately, ProPublica’s news app developer Al Shaw did the hard work for us. He realized Instagram’s API has something called “Media Search” that supports searches for the time and distance of where an Instagram photo was taken. He ended up hacking together an open source app called Sinatra, which uses addresses and end-to-end time to search through Instagram photos.

Shaw makes note of the app’s inadequacies, saying there are limitations to what you can do with the Instagram API. “There’s no way to search for text or hashtags (tags have their own endpoint which doesn’t allow geolocation), there’s no pagination of results, and results only go back a few months,” he explains.

The tool is mainly targeting journalists, so ProPublica has been using the app internally for now. Shaw points out several instances where Sinatra has been used to discover “breaking” news: Using Sinatra, ProPublica writer Justin Elliot discovered the questionable “recreational activities” of House Financial Services Committee chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling fraternizing with bankers at a ski getaway in Park City, Utah. 

Other noteworthy discoveries include photos of the Boston Marathon finish line eight minutes before the bomb exploded, and Newt Gingrich who was attending the White House Correspondent’s Dinner posing in Washington D.C.

Thanks to the over-sharing and expressive nature of our social, digital society, apps like Sinatra are a goldmine of information for journalists.

If you want to check out what Shaw built and use it for yourself, you’ll need to know some Ruby code. Unfortunately a public GUI (graphical user interface) of the app isn’t available, but it’s open source so you can fork it from GitHub.

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