Ok, ok. Before you tell me that word clouds are harmful or that most people use them ineffectively, let me start by saying that the one we built at The Seattle Times isn’t meant to be some type of comprehensive data visualization tool or a way to tell a narrative. The goal of the project was to create a reader engagement tool to easily collect and gauge reader sentiment around important issues.
We always ask people, via Twitter or Facebook, how they feel or what they think about a topic, and we usually get pretty good answers. But we don’t do anything with that information; it falls into an abyss. We sometimes use word clouds as a visual way of collecting and displaying reader input — but prior to the existence of our Word Cloud tool, the only way of doing that involved Google forms, which put data in a Google Spreadsheet, which we manually moderated and exported, then imported into Wordle, then changed fonts and colors, then saved as a JPEG, then manually uploaded into a blog post or story page multiple times a day (and it sure looked fugly).
Our word cloud tool — tentatively named the ‘Tude Cloud — removes all those steps. It’s a simple reader input form that validates against a few rules and a bad word API, records responses to a database, then displays them in a cloud format via jQuery and updates in realtime. It has an admin backend for Seattle Times staff to create clouds, moderate or add new bad words to our no-no list. The first project we used it on was our Recession Generation project, where we asked people how they feel about today’s job market.
Oh, and if you’re wondering: The tools and apps team at the Seattle Times is a “beta” team that consists of a producer, web designer and engineer who get a few hours a week to work on innovative tools for the newsroom. I’ve been sort of hush-hush about the launch of this new team because I wasn’t sure how long it’d be around, but now almost three months in, looks like we’re here to stay. Victory!
We’ll be open sourcing this project soon, along with a few other projects we’ve been working on . Stay tuned.