Some stories can be tough to visualize and make interactive on the Web. Many times, they involve boring data sets that are difficult to read, or aren't visually stimulating enough for video or photos.

Here are a few fun, free visualization tools that you can use with a variety of data sets:

Wordle.net

Wordle takes chunks of text and transforms them into colorful word maps. Its website describes what it does best:

"Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes. The images you create with Wordle are yours to use however you like. You can print them out, or save them to the Wordle gallery to share with your friends."

Wordle also removes words like "the," "and," "of" and "a" to showcase the meat of a text document. And it takes documents that may bore your readers and makes them visually stimulating and easier to digest.

Here are some ideas for utilizing Wordle online (and even in print):

  • Lengthy reports from government agencies.
  • Legal documents.
  • Speech transcripts (see an example using Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address below).

Tip: If you're trying to copy/paste PDF text into a Wordle, but the text isn't selectable, try importing it into Document Cloud. Document Cloud will give you a stripped-down chunk of selectable text after processing the PDF.


Click on the images above for a larger view.


Dipity.com

Dipity.com is the best interactive time line tool I've come across. Not only is it free, but it allows you to use text, links, pictures and video in your time lines and then embed the time lines into stories.

With the free account (there is also a premium option) you can edit, embed and customize any time line, but users will have to put up with a little advertising. To use Dipity, you sign up for a free account and select "create a time line." Give the time line a name and description and set permissions.

Add events to your time line and fill in the fields to include multimedia. When you're done adding events, click "save and view time line." If you ever need to edit your time line, log in to Dipity and select the events you need to change. You can even customize the look of your embedded time line.

Additionally, Dipity makes public time lines searchable, so anyone can stumble on your content if you've keyworded it correctly.

Tip: To drive more traffic to your site from Dipity, put a link in every event.

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Dipity.

This time line, which was featured on Dipity.com in January, highlights significant moments in Martin Luther King Jr.'s life.


Batchgeo.com

With batchgeo.com, ugly chunks of data become interactive maps in the time it takes to copy, paste and click.

BatchGeo.com is a free, Web-based tool that lets you make interactive maps from spreadsheets. You can embed these maps on your websites and easily edit or update them. Since BatchGeo.com uses Google Maps, they're also visible on mobile devices.

If you want a highly customized map, there is an upgrade option,

To make a map, start by creating a spreadsheet with the data you want to map based on the template that BatchGeo.com provides. The top of each column on the spreadsheet should be the title of a category like "address," "city," "state" or "description."

When your spreadsheet is complete, copy and paste all of the cells (including the titles for the columns) into the BatchGeo.com form. Validate and set your options and click "Make Google Map." Your data will process and markers will appear on the map.

If you're happy with your map, save it. You'll receive an e-mail with a link to edit or update the map at any time.

Tips:

  • Unless you're mapping spots in multiple countries, always select "United States" for the region. Also, always include city, state and (if possible) ZIP code. This will help BatchGeo locate your data points.
  • Use the "group by" option to categorize your data. Each "category" or "group" will have a different colored marker.
  • After you save a map, go back and edit the map's properties. Specifically, make sure the "expiration" option is disabled. That will keep your map from disappearing if no one views it for over two months.
  • When updating data, always select "validate & set options." Some options may automatically reset, so you want to make sure your options are set correctly.

Examples of BatchGeo.com maps

View Douglas County Foreclosures in a full-screen map.


Twitter widgets

Twitter has a slick set of free widgets you can customize to display anything from a single user account to an advanced search.

You can also edit the appearance, dimensions, title and caption. I recommend using Twitter's widgets over a system like TweetGrid, because it doesn't rely on a third party for information.

Here are some examples of Twitter widgets:



Some other data viz tools that are worth checking out:

Google Forms: Create free, embeddable forms to capture user-submitted data. Information goes directly into a Google Docs spreadsheet.

ManyEyes: IBM's free data visualization tool. Upload your own data sets or use a pre-existing one on the site.

Trendistic.com: Follow the popularity of trending topics on Twitter with Trendistic's embedddable graphs.

Digital tools aren't a replacement for traditional storytelling, but access to them gives us the ability to tell a story in the best way possible -- not just the way that is most convenient. Not every story will need a data visualization piece, but some stories could be told exclusively through visualizations such as maps, time lines and word clouds. Think about ways to add these tools, which can all be easily integrated into many websites, to your arsenal.