Information Gathering

This page looks at ways of maximising your effectiveness at research. Whether you are looking for a person's contact information, news about a place, detailed background checks, or up-to-the-minute gossip, you want to find it quickly and easily.

Effective searches
Alerts and feeds
Twitter search
Google Maps

Effective searches

Particularly when you have slow internet connections or little time, you do not want to do a search that brings up long lists of the wrong results. Whether you are using Google or Yahoo or any other search engine, the quality of the answers that you get is directly linked to the quality of the question that you asked.

Here are some simple formulas for specific searches:

  1. [African media] Type this into the search bar and you will get lots of pages that either contain the word African or the word media.
    Google search
    Figure 1: Notice how the results include the word 'African' OR the word 'media'.
  2. [African+media] This search is more specific. It will only show you results that include both of these words.
    Google search
    Figure 2: Notice how the results include the word 'African' AND the word 'media'.
  3. ["African media"] This search will only bring you pages with these two words written exactly as you have typed them, in that order. Nothing else. 
  4. [African -media] This search will bring up only those pages that contain the word African but DO NOT contain the word media. 
  5. [African ~ media] The little character you see here is called 'tilde' and it will help you find pages containing the word 'African' and anything connected with the word 'media', for example it might list African photography, African journalism, African television.
    Google search
    Figure 3: Notice how the results include the word 'African' but then all kinds of synonyms for 'media', such as 'press'.

Alerts and feeds

A very useful way of staying abreast of up-to-date news and comments on specific subjects is by getting alerts sent to you automatically. These you do not need to be read immediately, but they help you to build up and maintain a body of knowledge on subjects. Very often it is this knowledge that sets you apart not only as a professional, but as THE professional who is in the know and should be commissioned or consulted.

If you have specific subject matter on which you want to stay informed, you can set up a Google Alert so that whenever the search engine comes across that term anywhere on the web, you will be alerted.

On the other hand, you probably already have some sites that you know to be full of the kind of information that interests you, but you often forget to go and read them. You can set up an RSS Feed so that any time those sites are updated, you will be alerted.

Google Alerts

To set up a Google Alert, you must be logged into your Google account.

See how to create a Google account

Look through the list of all Google products, until you find Alerts, or click here. Then simply type in the subject that you want to monitor, how often you want to receive information, and which email address it should be sent to. Do try to be specific. If you are interested in a specific place, put in as much detail as possible. For example, if you want to be alerted to any mentions of the town of Livingstone, you should specify 'Livingstone, Zambia', otherwise you will be alerted to every mention of that town as well as the historic figure Dr David Livingstone, as well as Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London.

Google Alert

Figure 4: An illustration of how to set up a Google Alert. Note that this search term is not as specific as it could be. 

Based on your search request, you will get an email either daily, weekly or 'as-it-happens', alerting you to the fact that Google has found a reference to the term you are interested in.  

Google Alert email

Figure 5: A typical Google Alert email. Notice how the non-specific search term has brought up references to a number of different people with that name as well as the Zambian town.

RSS Feeds

Another way of staying informed is by retrieving the latest content from sites you are already interested in and know to be filled with the type of information you want. Many news-related sites, weblogs and other online publishers syndicate their content as an RSS Feed to whoever wants it. You, as the reader, save time by not needing to visit each site individually. You ensure your privacy, by not needing to join each site's email newsletter. 

To receive RSS Feeds, you need some kind of RSS Reader. This software is a bit like a net that catches the various RSS feeds and displays them for you to read. It is somewhat like subscribing to a website: the information comes to you, rather than you going to it. As to be expected, Google has its own reader, called, Google Reader, but Yahoo and Bloglines are other popular readers.  Once you have your Feed Reader, it is a matter of finding the sites and adding their RSS feeds to your reader's list. 

View a short video on how to use Google Reader, a tool for viewing all of your RSS feeds. 

Twitter search

Everybody tweets, but who listens? While Twitter is most often referenced as a way of putting news out, it is a very useful tool for finding out what people around the world are saying about a subject right now. If you are a photographer or multimedia creator, this is a useful way of keeping ahead of your competitors, whether you are involved in hard news or want to be moving with the latest trends.


Figure 6: An example of a search that produces up-to-the-minute information.

Gone are the days when you, as a Majority World photographer, need to be part of a large organisation to have access to the latest information on what is happening on the ground when news is breaking and you want to capture some of the action. If you were a photographer in Libya during the civil war there, for example, a simple Twitter search would give you details on what other journalists as well as local civilians were saying, and you could make decisions based on that information. All of this would not even require you to have a Twitter account of your own. You would simply be reading others' 'tweets'.

View Twitter's own how-to video for an excellent introduction to the usefulness of this tool

Google Maps

A great deal of information can be gleaned about a place by looking at maps and aerial photographs. Very often, in fact, you can learn more about a place by viewing via your computer screen than by actually being there. If you are a photographer, for example, you can plan your shoot before ever getting to the location in question. Also, if you have geo-tagging capabilities on your camera, which then automatically adds the co-ordinates to your metadata, it is easy to find out exactly where a picture was taken long after you have forgotten the details of where you were.

When visiting a new city and needing to find your way around, you can type in the location you want to get to, and Google Maps will automatically calculate where you are now and give you directions and a map of how to get to your destination - all at no cost and without being logged in to any account.

Google maps search

Figure 7: Google Maps in action: even a very vague search often brings up surprisingly accurate results.

Best in terms of professionalism is obviously to research the city in advance. You can, for example, use Google Maps to help you to find accommodation and the best route from the airport long before you get there.


Google maps search

Figure 8: The search result: driving directions listed on the left and the actual map on the right. Notice that you can opt for driving or walking directions, and that you can zoom in on the map to see far more detail.

Once you have the result, you have the option to print, email or to get a link to the result. Even if you must pay for the print-out at an Internet cafe or hotel, it is much cheaper than buying a map book. The link can be cut and paste into a website, for example, next to a portfolio of images of that journey.

Many layers of additional information are available to you to aid your research. You can view photographs that others have taken, online reference articles, reviews and opinions, satellite imagery to show the terrain, etc. With all of this information available to you for free in advance, you are able to begin work as soon as you land at your destination.


Google maps results