Twitter was originally designed as an app that would allow people to share information about what they were doing within a distributed group setting. It's something akin to a collection of automatically forming email discussion lists (except not via email). The benefit of this is that people can receive and send information within a group very quickly. That's why Twitter has become such an important source of breaking news, and it's also why helpful consumer information apps like Commuter Feed are possible.
Last month, we talked about why Twitter is evolving into a great platform for the dissemination of breaking news stories. Twitter is fast, it's open, it is distributed, and it works in both directions (it's read/write).
It is the distributed nature of Twitter that makes it such a powerful tool for citizen journalism. Not only can Twitter be used by individuals to push news out to people quickly and as it happens, but it can also be used to crowdsource the process of gathering information. One of the best examples of this in action is Commuter Feed.
Commuter Feed, which launched last week, is a Twitter mashup that plays off the distributed nature of the app to aggregate traffic reports. It works by asking users to tweet traffic updates at a Twitter robot along with an IATA airport code (used to designate the city where the post is originating) and then parses those traffic updates to the correct city. For example, "@commuter PDX Trailer overturned at exit 10 on I-84" would parse to Portland, Oregon. Each metro then gets its own page and its own RSS feed.
Commuter Feed works by tapping into the wisdom of the crowd and the more people that use it, the more accurate and up-to-date the information can be. "Commuter Feed's dependence on the community changes the commuting landscape for an instant, personal account of what to expect on the way to and from home," said the company in a press release.
As Webware's Josh Lowensohn notes, Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! all have real-time traffic overlays on their mapping products. But my guess is that if you have enough penetration in your metro, Commuter Feed might end up being more timely and on top of current conditions. We saw with the California wildfires last fall that often times it was citizen journalists reporting on the scene that scooped the mainstream press. There can only be so many traffic helicopters and government officials reporting traffic conditions, but there is an almost unlimited number of commuters on the roads and armed with cell phones. Of course, I hope they're not tweeting while driving!
How else would you like to see Commuter Feed's localized information gathering and distribution model applied? What other types of information and news do you think could benefit from this sort of set up? Let us know in the comments.