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Updated: December 11, 2012 6:03AM

An Evanston startup’s breakthrough technology that identifies Tweets, YouTube videos and photos from Flickr, Instagram and Picasa by their locations helped emergency responders find Hurricane Sandy victims and is giving federal authorities a new way to identify human trafficking.

The company, Geofeedia (, developed a set of algorithms to search the social-media sources by geography in near real time. The system pinpoints geotags to weed out false addresses on Twitter, where users can manually set their “hometown” locations.

“You just type in a place name, address and zip code (to find a Tweet, video or image),” said CEO Phil Harris, who started and financed the company with Chief Operating Officer Mike Mulroy and Chief Technology Officer Scott Mitchell.

The social media that show up in the results have geolocation enabled. People can access free, streaming results on their computers or mobile devices. Businesses may pay customized fees for more intensive searches.

Users may also draw a circle on a map, set date and time parameters and filter results by using keywords. Users may choose a variety of ways to see the results, such as looking only at Tweets and not images, and they may create “collections” of items to share with colleagues or others.

In separate interviews, Harris and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse executive Paul Stephens said people need to be aware when they are broadcasting their communications.

Harris said parents need to educate children on the appropriate times to use social media to communicate. Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the clearinghouse, said it’s easier than ever to pinpoint people’s locations as data becomes aggregated.

Eric G. Frost, a Homeland Security professor at San Diego State University, said the school’s “Viz” Center — short for visualization center — used Geofeedia to show the U.S. Department of Homeland Security how it could pinpoint in real time the photos, Tweets and life-saving efforts at the July 20 shooting at a Batman movie debut at a Colorado theater.

“The people at the theater were taking photos and tweeting out critical insights,” said Frost, the Viz Center director. “You could immediately see it was a real shooting and that people were trying to save lives. Geofeedia helped organize chaos, which is what the Department of Homeland Security tries to do with the resources it has.”

Local law enforcement officers may also look at “collages” of young women’s photos posted in a known drug-trafficking area or near a sports arena when a game is being played, to figure out that human trafficking may be going on there, he said.

“It’s like a browser for people to look at open-source data to help with disasters, but also ways of helping real people in need in near real time,” Frost said.

It’s also a resource that lets disaster responders and law-enforcement authorities save money by using the Internet’s infrastructure to make wiser decisions faster, he said.

Geofeedia competes with keyword search sites Radian6 and Brandwatch, as well as innovations such as MIT researchers’ algorithm that predicts which topics will catch fire on Twitter. The MIT algorithm identifies underlying data patterns in tweets that tend to become water-cooler conversation topics.

Geofeedia similary serves as a bullhorn of sorts for “citizen” journalists and lets businesses listen in on their customers’ conversations.

Because of the service’s reach, it could eventually monitor social media coming from a retail chain, as well as competitors’ stores, and give marketing people intelligence during the all-important holiday season to offer deals or other promotions. That’s becoming increasingly important as brick-and-mortar retailers seek to entice shoppers to buy from their shelves rather than turn to their mobile devices and comparison shop online.

“Businesses will be able to filter ‘big data’ — the exploding amounts of data and social media — to figure out what’s important,” Harris said.

Geofeedia proved its humanitarian and journalistic bonafides during Hurricane Sandy, when it helped root out a Twitter user sending false information about, among other things, the New York Stock Exchange being flooded and where people needed to be rescued.

“Emergency responders searched for the most damaged storm areas so they could decide where to put their resources,” Harris said.

The site drew six times its normal traffic as post-hurricane users retrieved several million social-media items over a two-day period.

Emergency workers combined their findings with other new-technology resources such as data from the National Weather Service, Geographic Information Systems, analytics software that examines enormous data banks and logistics systems that track inventory, deliveries and resource allocations.

Indeed, social media took on unprecedented importance during Hurricane Sandy, with mayors, governors, police and firefighters texting and Twittering announcements, posting storm preparation videos on YouTube and creating Pinterest pages with photos and other resources to use in emergencies.

They did so because so many people no longer use or own radios.

The findings define what Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen calls “disruptive innovation” — or new technologies that change entire markets and eventually outperform established companies.

Geofeedia’s ability to chomp through metadata — information about the content of other data — also reflects the growing importance of “big data,” in which special algorithms are replacing database management tools because data is growing exponentially.

Geofeedia moved its sales, marketing, accounting and customer support operations in July to the Technology Innovation Center incubator in Evanston. The three co-founders moved operations here from the company’s engineering center in Naples, Fla.

“We opened in Chicago because of the great things happening in the tech community here,” Harris said, referring to the flurry of startups and their accelerators, incubators and coworking space supporters. “People in Chicago work hard, and there is a high quality of life, yet housing is relatively affordable. People enjoy a higher standard of living than in other urban areas, and that leads to a better, happier workforce.”

Geofeedia aims to expand the company, create jobs and move to a larger space.

“We have big aspirations,” Harris said. “This is new, cutting-edge technology. We’ve invested several years of our lives building it. And a rich set of data is still emerging. Who knows what the next Instagram will be?”

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