How to use fun (and free) data visualization tools for online storytelling

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 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. 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 in January, highlights significant moments in Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.

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


  • 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 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. 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.

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  • JIll Starr

    Irrefutable Proof ICTY Is Corrupt Court/Irrefutable Proof the Hague Court Cannot Legitimately Prosecute Karadzic Case By Jill Starr
    (The Documentary Secret United Nations ICC Meeting Papers Scanned Images)

    This legal technicality indicates the Hague must dismiss charges against Dr Karadzic and others awaiting trials in the Hague jail; like it or not.

    Unfortunately for the Signatures Of the Rome Statute United Nations member states instituting the ICC & ICTY housed at the Hague, insofar as the, Radovan Karadzic, as with the other Hague cases awaiting trial there, I personally witnessed these United Nations member states having a substantial conversations, and, openly speaking about trading judicial appointments and verdicts for financial funding when I attended the 2001 ICC Preparatory Meetings at the UN in Manhattan making the iCTY and ICC morally incapable trying Radovan Karazdic and others.

    I witnessed with my own eyes and ears when attending the 2001 Preparatory Meetings to establish an newly emergent International Criminal Court, the exact caliber of criminal corruption running so very deeply at the Hague, that it was a perfectly viable topic of legitimate conversation in those meetings I attended to debate trading verdicts AND judicial appointments, for monetary funding.

    Jilly wrote:*The rep from Spain became distraught and when her country’s proposal was not taken to well by the chair of the meeting , then Spain argued in a particularly loud and noticably strongly vocal manner, “Spain (my country) strongly believes if we contribute most financial support to the Hague’s highest court, that ought to give us and other countries feeding it financially MORE direct power over its decisions.”

    ((((((((((((((((((((((((( ((((((((((((((((((((((((( Instead of censoring the country representative from Spain for even bringing up this unjust, illegal and unfair judicial idea of bribery for international judicial verdicts and judicial appointments, all country representatives present in the meeting that day all treated the Spain proposition as a ”totally legitimate topic” discussed and debated it between each other for some time. I was quite shocked! The idea was “let’s discuss it.” “It’s a great topic to discuss.”

    Some countries agreed with Spain’s propositions while others did not. The point here is, bribery for judicial verdicts and judicial appointments was treated as a totally legitimate topic instead of an illegitimate topic which it is in the meeting that I attended in 2001 that day to establish the ground work for a newly emergent international criminal court.))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

    In particular., since “Spain” was so overtly unafraid in bringing up this topic of trading financial funding the ICC for influence over its future judicial appointments and verdicts in front of every other UN member state present that day at the UN, “Spain” must have already known by previous experience the topic of bribery was “socially acceptable” for conversation that day. They must have previously spoke about bribing the ICTY and ICC before in meetings; this is my take an international sociological honor student.

    SPAIN’s diplomatic gesture of international justice insofar as, Serbia, in all of this is, disgusting morally!SPAIN HAS TAUGHT THE WORLD THE TRUE DEFINITION OF AN “INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT.”

    I represented the state interests’ of the Former Yugoslavia, in Diplomat Darko Trifunovic’s absence in those meetings and I am proud to undertake this effort on Serbia’s behalf.
    International Relations Consultant & War Crimes Investigator
    - War
    - Peace
    - Preventive Diplomatic Strategies
    - International Law
    - Charitable Causes
    - International Business
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    - War Crimes Investigations
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    - Law Projects Center Funded Projects (YCICC) Internationally

  • JIll Starr

    What It’s Like to Chill Out With Whom the Rest of the World Considers As The Most Ruthless Men: Ratko Mladic, Goran Hadzic and Radovan Karadzic (+) Confessions of a Female War Crimes Investigator By Jill Louise Starr NJ USA

    Retrospectively, it was all so simple, natural and matter of fact being on a boat restaurant in Belgrade, sitting with, laughing, drinking a two hundred bottle of wine and chatting about war and peace while Ratko Mladic held my hand. Mladic, a man considered the world’s most ruthless war criminal since Adolf Hitler, still at large and currently having a five million dollar bounty on his head for genocide by the international community. Yet there I was with my two best friends at the time, a former Serbian diplomat, his wife, and Ratko Mladic just chilling. There was no security, nothing you’d ordinarily expect in such circumstances. Referring to himself merely as, Sharko; this is the story of it all came about.
    International Relations Consultant & War Crimes Investigator
    - War
    - Peace
    - Preventive Diplomatic Strategies
    - International Law
    - Charitable Causes
    - International Business
    - International Political Economy
    - Human Rights – Politics
    - War Crimes Investigations
    - Anti-Terrorism
    - Law Projects Center Funded Projects (YCICC) Internationally (Read My Political Satire Photo Site Too On Google)!!

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  • Anonymous

    Batchgeo really reminded me of Bime, a SaaS tool that does geospatial analysis very well – also using the Google Maps interface. It’s definitely a fun and beautifully simple tool to use to visualize your data, and you can connect to a wide range of data sources. check out the free trial at, I’d love to hear any feedback.