As a nerdy data person, I’m particularly happy when I can use nerdy data things to solve a real-life problem. Even if/especially when it’s kind of hacky.

Here’s one example:

I recently moved to NYC from L.A. (more on that in a later post!). Luckily, lots of people I know live in NYC. But there are some people in NYC that I haven’t kept in close touch with. Social media is great for reconnecting in these cases. How do I find my friends in NYC using Facebook and Twitter?

Surprisingly/unsurprisingly, even though it’s easy to use Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis, it’s not so straightforward to get data on relationships, even when that data is about yourself. Creepiness factor aside, you should be able to easily access your own information.

My Facebook friends who live in NYC

It was actually pretty easy to find my Facebook friends who live in NYC. All I had to do was type “my friends who live in new york, new york” into the search bar.

The result is a list of friends I can browse through. Of course, I had to know to type that particular phrase into the search bar, which is why I’d say it’s not super intuitive; to make a Harry Potter reference (can’t resist), it’s like having to know you need to say the phrase “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” in order to activate the Marauder’s Map.

My Twitter followers who live in NYC

Twitter is even more annoying. Its advanced search feature lets you search tweets—but not people—by location.

The fact that I can’t easily get a list of my Twitter followers is particularly frustrating, especially since it’s my own data. Even the helpful-sounding article, “Accessing your Twitter data”, was no great help (apparently my Twitter data doesn’t include my followers).

I asked a few friends (thanks, @dhmontgomery!) and it turns out that there is a programmatic solution to this.

First, I had to get a Twitter API Key by creating an “application” (I called mine “testing”) here.

In R, the twitteR package makes it easy to get Twitter followers to a data table. After entering your API Key, access token etc. it just takes a few lines of code:

setup_twitter_oauth(api_key, api_secret, access_token, access_secret)

user <- getUser("christinezhang")
user_follower_IDs <- user$getFollowers(retryOnRateLimit=180)
user_followers <- rbindlist(lapply(user_follower_IDs, 

This gets me a table of my followers (a row per follower) and a bunch of columns, the most relevant of which are name, screenName, and location:

For various reasons, I’ve been trying to do more programming in Python lately, so I was motivated to check out a Python solution. The tweepy package (ISWYDT with the name) does a similar thing:

twitter_handle = 'christinezhang'

auth = tweepy.auth.OAuthHandler(consumer_key, consumer_secret)
auth.set_access_token(access_token, access_secret)
api = tweepy.API(auth)

f = csv.writer(open('followers_python.csv', 'wb'))

f.writerow(["screenName", "name", "location", "description"])

users = tweepy.Cursor(api.followers, screen_name=twitter_handle, count = 200).items()

for u in users:
    screenName = u.screen_name
    name =
    location = u.location

    f.writerow([screenName, name, location])

I saved the relevant columns directly to a .csv file. When I open the file on my Mac, this is what I get:

Shoutout to @HarlanH, who ran Data Community DC, and who now lives in New York! When I told him about my nerdy data way of finding friends, he told me that there is a simpler, non-programmatic solution to all this—Tweepsmap. Go figure I did this the hard way.

Things I didn’t mention / haven’t done yet

  • For people who haven’t put down a location, the location field will be blank. Not much I can do about that.

  • Cleaning the data: @HarlanH put his location down as “Brooklyn, NY”, @victorR2 wrote “New York, NY”, @gussand wrote “New York City”, and @paperswelovenyc wrote “NYC” (click on the profile links to see for yourself). This can get a little messy, since for my purposes, these are all “my Twitter followers who live in New York.”

  • Geocoding: one way to solve the above issue is by geocoding (getting the lat/long coordinates) each location and putting them on a map. This post by Lucas Puente does it with R and the Google Maps API.

  • Rate limits: Twitter’s API is rate limited, meaning each access token only gets you a certain number of requests per time period. I don’t have that many followers (1,565 at time of writing), so it’s not a huge deal for me. But it would be a problem for someone with, say 3000 or a million followers. I think retryOnRateLimit=180 in twitteR is a way to mitigate this (by spacing calls out in 15 minute windows if the rate limit is reached), but I haven’t figured out how to do it in Python with tweepy.

Full R and Python code on GitHub — tell me what I got wrong.