Giancarlo is an investigator and trainer for Bellingcat Latin America. He is also a PhD candidate at the Center for Criminology and Social Law at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on protests against policing and internal conflicts. For questions and story ideas, you can contact him via email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter (@gianfiorella).
The promise of open source research is that anyone—not just journalists or researchers from specific institutions—can participate in investigations, expose wrongdoings, and hold those responsible for crimes and atrocities accountable.
When we say "anyone", we mean anyone: if you have an internet connection, free time, and a firm commitment to knowing the truth, you can also become an open source researcher.
Starting open source research can be daunting, especially if you are completely new to the field. But there is no reason to be afraid: this guide will show you specific steps you can take to develop your skills, discover communities based on your interests, and ultimately provide help for important research.
By following these steps, you will learn where to find open source researchers, how to observe and learn from their work, and how to practice the new skills you will develop.
Are you interested in specific conflicts? Or do you like solving puzzles, which can be transformed into geolocation images? Do you have a programming background or knowledge of multiple languages? Or are you fascinated by military machinery and equipment?
Knowing the topics you are interested in and what you are good at will help you find other researchers on social media, you may want to follow their work, and ultimately may be used to provide information for yourself.
If you are not sure how your skills and interests translate into this field, don’t worry: it just means you will have more discoveries.
The importance of this step cannot be overemphasized.
Twitter is the main medium for identifying, debating, and disseminating open source research. It is full of practitioners who are eager to discuss best methods and practices with others and share their own and the work of others. Having a Twitter account will enable you to follow researchers so that you can learn from their work and ask questions and discuss with like-minded researchers.
If you are security conscious or want to be anonymous for any reason, you can easily set up a Twitter account that does not contain your real name or other personal information. The open source research community welcomes anonymous accounts, and anonymous operations do not have any negative connotations (although you may find that if you receive a publication or job offer, you will eventually have to reveal your identity).
If you still don’t like Twitter, remember that you don’t have to post anything — forever. The main purpose of Twitter may be to show you what other researchers are saying and publishing, so you don’t have to interact with anyone unless you want to.
Once you are on Twitter, you will want to follow many open source researchers. This will enable you to understand which topics are of interest to the field, which organizations tend to focus on which issues, and which methods they use in their research. More importantly, you will be able to learn methods, tools and best practices directly from experts.
If you are new to the field of open source research, it may be a good idea to cast the net and follow researchers from well-known institutions such as the New York Times Visual Survey, Bellingcat, or the Washington Post Visual Forensics Team.
An easy way to find open source researchers is to follow the Twitter list. Any user can create a list of accounts, and some people—such as Malachy Browne of the New York Times Visual Investigations Team—have provided these lists. His "OOSI List" contains more than 200 open source researchers, and you can follow the list to keep up with their work.
Some people use the term “online open source investigation” (OOSI), while others use “open source investigation” (OSI), but the term that has appeared the longest and most frequently used on social media is “open source intelligence” (open source intelligence). These terms are often used interchangeably, but you may need to consider some of the differences between them.
The difference between OOSI and OSI is the name: Although OOSI refers to surveys that only use online resources, you can use OSI to describe surveys that also use offline open source.
Some people who use OOSI or OSI instead of OSINT do so because they feel that the name "OSINT" has a direct meaning for intelligence agencies. For these institutions, OSINT is part of the intelligence source ecosystem, which includes HUMINT (Human Intelligence), SOCMINT (Social Media Intelligence), IMINT (Image Intelligence), etc. Although some independent researchers may feel uncomfortable with this meaning, the term is still widely used and may be the most recognized.
In any case, we recommend that you use all these search terms to expand the resources available to you.
Malachy Browne's OOSI Twitter list has more than 200 researchers and organizations, and you will discover their work.
Other useful lists of Twitter researchers include:
Over time, as you become more familiar with this field, you will begin to notice how extensive and diverse it is. In some corners, you’ll find researchers focused on identifying weapons seen in videos of conflict areas; in some cases, you’ll see people spending time tracking aircraft or ships, and in other cases, you’ll find Expert geolocator. You may decide to create your own list of niche researchers, and you can follow the instructions in this guide.
Open source researchers and enthusiasts tend to spend a lot of time online, which means they may hang out in the digital space outside of Twitter.
Discord is a popular messaging application that several open source communities have chosen to build on. These communities are similar to chat rooms on the early Internet and are called "servers" in Discord jargon.
Bellingcat's Discord server is located here. Anyone can join and share tools, ask questions, and collaborate on research projects. The server is divided into topics, and users are welcome to post relevant content for discussion.
Other open source communities with Discord servers that you should check are:
There are more open source-centric Discord servers, so never stop looking. Remember that open source research is a collaborative effort, so don’t be afraid to go out and build a network.
The Discord channel is a great place to meet and chat with other people interested in research. In the Bellingcat Discord server, there is a channel dedicated to sharing research tools and resources.
Reddit also has an open source research community, including subreddit r/Bellingcat operated by the community. r/OSINT has more than 26,000 members, making it an active center for all questions and answers related to the field.
The r/TraceAnObject subreddit is dedicated to bringing together people who want to help EUROPOL through its #TraceAnObject campaign and the FBI’s Endangered Children Alert Program. The campaign allows law enforcement agencies to request the public's assistance in identifying individuals, objects, and locations in child sexual abuse images. Spending time on these subreddits can not only help you potentially help rescue children, but also develop your open source research skills in the process. Bellingcat's own Carlos Gonzales started open source research by helping these two activities part-time.
Joining these types of spaces and interacting with other enthusiasts and researchers may give you the opportunity to contribute to important projects and even inspire you to start your own projects.
Now that you know what the community looks like, where the researchers hang out and who is doing what, you can start to spend time developing and practicing the new skills you will master.
An excellent way to practice research skills is to try the @Quiztime challenge on Twitter. The account publishes images every day and challenges you to find out where they were taken.
Sometimes, the quiz will also establish an established geographic location for the image, requiring you to determine what the object in the image is or when it was taken.
This Quiztime challenge requires you to determine the location and construction time of the bridge. what will you do?
Geolocation is not the only skill you can develop with Quiztime Challenges.
Considering the example above, how do you narrow the number of search areas from "anywhere on earth" to a specific country or region? How do you determine what kind of bridge it is? Will reverse image search work, or do I have to delve into bridge design? Are there any bridge architecture databases or other resources for you to learn from? Google Maps will be the starting point for geolocation, but Google Street View is not available in many places in the world. If this is the case where the bridge is, how else can you find a street image of this place?
If you are working to solve this challenge, these are just some of the questions you might ask yourself, and if you are working on an open source project to verify images of atrocities, you might ask yourself these questions. A conflict zone.
Similarly, Geoguessr is a very popular geolocation game in the open source community (Bellingcat and OSINT Curious, to give two examples, streaming Geoguessr games on Twitch). The game will take you into the Google Street View imagery, and your job is to accurately guess where the photo was taken. After each guess, you will get points. The closer your guess is to the actual location, the more points you will earn.
You can play the game according to different rules, including not using Google to search for information or not moving from the landing site. These make the game very worthwhile to replay and allow you to adjust its difficulty to your liking.
You can spend hours honing your geolocation skills on Geoguessr.
At this point, you can start putting some of these steps together. For example, you might decide to collaborate with other Twitter users on Quiztime challenges, or set up a Geoguessr game night with someone you meet on the Bellingcat Discord server.
You can also consider participating in Trace Lab’s Search Party CTF and other activities, in which teams of four compete to find information about missing persons (you can learn more about Trace Labs’ work and why on their "About" page). By participating in these activities, you not only have the potential to help find missing persons, but you also have the opportunity to work with (and learn from) other OSI enthusiasts by practicing your skills in a team environment.
Now that you are all ready, here are some ideas to keep you going.
A major feature of the open source research community is willingness to share knowledge. This kind of knowledge sharing sometimes takes the form of newsletters and community resource pages, which contain tools and research projects for you to explore.
Sector035's Week in OSINT is a weekly newsletter that reviews the past 7 days in the field of open source research. The newsletter covers everything from new tools discovered or developed by the community to new articles and other resources just released. Week in OSINT sends the best and latest open source research to your inbox, making it a guaranteed way to learn the ropes in this field.
Bellingcat's guides and resources section includes articles that focus on methodology. The purpose of the article in this section is to show the reader a new tool or technique and provide an example of how to use it in a research project. We also have a digital survey toolkit, which is regularly updated with new tools.
As mentioned in their Discord channel before, OSINT Curious is a community of open source researchers who produce podcasts and live all open source content. They are constantly introducing new content, so you will never lack something to learn.
Individual researchers also actively collect resources and provide them to the public, such as Hatless1der's Ultimate OSINT Collection and OSINT Hub. As you become familiar with the research fields on Twitter, you will find that individuals take the initiative to share these useful resources with the community.
If you are interested in understanding every detail of how to put together an open source research project, be sure to bookmark the Berkeley Digital Open Source Investigation Agreement. This document is a one-stop resource for all issues related to workflow, from research ethics and legal considerations to security awareness and data collection and analysis. The protocol was developed by an impressive team of some of the brightest minds in the field, and led by the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Chances are that you will soon find that geolocation, time location, determining objects in images, or any other skills you choose to develop are difficult to master. You may find that you cannot solve the @Quiztime challenge, or that the conversations people have on your Discord server involve topics and technologies that you have never heard of.
do not be discouraged. be patient.
Those of us who make a living don't have any of these skills in the first day, week, or month (importantly, many or even most experienced researchers don't make a living at all). In fact, ask any open source researcher and they will tell you that they are learning new things every day, and they are also newbies in certain areas of the field (for example, I hardly know the first thing about Python).
If you feel that learning is slow, please don't be discouraged. As long as you have fun in your studies, you will definitely make progress. If you persevere, you will look back on the first day a month or a year later and realize how far you have come!
As you begin your journey as an open source researcher, it is important to realize that you may be exposed to traumatic materials, depending on the topics you care about and the events you decide to investigate. This may come in the form of images of human tragedies following conflict areas, environmental destruction or natural disasters. Because we are all different, we all have different triggers and thresholds to deal with traumatic materials.
It is important that you know that there are online resources that can help you understand trauma and how to build resilience. The Dart Journalism and Trauma Center is dedicated to providing journalists and researchers with resources related to dealing with trauma, including practical guidelines for dealing with trauma images. Don't wait to check these resources when you are in trouble. Get acquainted with them and implement their suggestions into your workflow to help ensure your mental health and well-being.
I have asked other open source researchers to share their own suggestions for those who have just entered the field. This is what they have to say:
"Don't worry about the skills of open source intelligence, or being very good at geolocation. You will master these. But be very, very, curious and creative. Be the one who keeps pulling that thin thread until you know what is on the other side."
"Have fun. Instead of empty general advice: make sure you are doing what interests you."
"Creativity, perseverance, and determination are higher than any available toolkit. Take a moment to think about how to solve problems. Follow your instincts, but record/archive what you are doing. Provide feedback to yourself to correct your trajectory and avoid it. Rabbit hole. Believe and enjoy what you are doing. When you don’t know something, please don’t hesitate to ask the open source community. There are very good people out there to help and guide you."
"Don't try to be an expert in all types of OSINT in the beginning: it may be too large and difficult to resist. Choose a type you are interested in and develop it into a specialty. The tools are the brighter side of OSINT, but the real trick is the methodology. Therefore, look for successful examples of open source intelligence methods for learning, while also considering how to investigate that particular case."
— Manisha Ganguly (BBC reporter and OSINT documentary producer)
"Open source intelligence is about curiosity, creativity, sharing and collaboration, and continuous learning. The beauty of the OSINT community is that everyone has specific technical skills, passion for things like bird watching, or special topics such as architecture Knowledge. If you adopt this mindset, then please trust your intuition and skills and start using @Quiztime."
— Julia Bayer (Investigative journalist at Deutsche Welle, founder of Quiztime)
There is a lot to say about the insights that can be gathered through OSINT to have a real impact on the world around you. A few principles: Don’t be afraid to ask others questions or make mistakes in the learning process. If you can, please set specific goals for your project. Archive everything you might need. Don't take what others have said as facts, look it up for yourself. Always seek context and don’t rush to be the first to post a discovery.
— Calibre Obscura (Weapons and Non-State Armed Group Analyst)
Visit Twitter, follow OSI experts in your area of interest, send them a message to learn about their work and provide your help. This is how most of us join the community.
— Aliaume Leroy (open source investigator and producer, BBC)
Now that you know how to start open source research, what about setting a goal?
Following the steps in this guide, you can learn open source research in the next few months to prepare for the release of our volunteer platform. As it will be launched in 2022, the platform will allow you to contribute to various open source research projects. You will be able to register, log in, voluntarily participate in tasks on the platform, and complete tasks with other volunteers.
Please pay close attention to our Twitter account and our website, where we will post instructions on how to participate after the platform is launched. We hope to see you there.
Your donation to Bellingcat is a direct contribution to our research. With your support, we will continue to publish groundbreaking investigations and expose illegal activities around the world.
In addition to the content we have published, we will also introduce readers to the activities our employees and contributors participate in, such as noteworthy interviews and training seminars.