Meet the open-source Twitter bot to help you surface stories on anything

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

Mike Enerio on Unsplash

Freedom of the Press Foundation is releasing a free software Python program called Track The News, which for several months we've used to power our Twitter bot FOIA Feed's automatic aggregation. Since its launch, FOIA Feed has published excerpts from hundreds of articles across dozens of outlets, highlighting how public records requests propelled each story’s reporting.

We’ve previously described our motivation behind FOIA Feed, which was to use automation to cut across over a dozen news outlets and surface the diverse journalism that relies on public records laws. But once we'd built it, we realized that its underlying framework could be useful in many other scenarios.

Maybe you want to monitor a collection of local news sources for reporting on a contentious development project; or top tech news sites mentioning a particular group of influential investors; or political blogs acknowledging a long-shot primary challenger. With Track The News, we’ve built a tool that allows the kind of extensive configuration necessary to run such an application, and a mechanism to share the results immediately and automatically with the public.

Plus, since it accepts any RSS feeds as input, the possibilities aren't strictly limited to news sources. It can track, say, press releases from elected officials for mentions of a particular movement or cause.

We hope to see applications of Track The News beyond transparency reporting. We've built it to be flexible about what it can monitor—it can take any collection of RSS feeds as inputs, and check for any words or phrases, with either case-sensitive or -insensitive matches. In that way, it works like a public-facing news alert, but with even more options in terms of inputs. (For now, matching stories post to dedicated Twitter accounts, but we're looking to expand that further in future releases.)

And of course, some uses would never occur to us, but would be obvious to people working in other fields, specialties, or geographical areas. We have cleaned up the source code and have now released it as a Special Project so more people could use it—and even contribute to its code.

Our friends at Frag Den Staat, a German transparency organization, have already jumped in and launched a beta of their own take on FOIA Feed: called @IFG_IFG_IFG, in a reference to Germany’s primary freedom of information law. It tracks German language news sources for reporting based on documents so obtained.

So if you feel comfortable running a script that can power a Twitter bot, Track The News is as easy as `pip install trackthenews`. After a simple configuration process, your bot should be good to go. If you're interested, the documentation you need is in the GitHub repo for the project.

And we'd love to hear what news you're tracking! There are endless options, and we hope this release inspires folks to explore some of them.

If you're interested, check out the GitHub repo and feel free to email [email protected] with any questions about how it works.

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