Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Safety and Security and Wordle

If you do much browsing on the Web, you most certainly have encountered a word cloud. Word clouds have nothing to do with cloud computing, but instead are a visual representation of text. Unique words on a Web site or from some other source are listed, arranged artistically and shown in different type sizes. The size depends on word frequency, with words used more often appearing larger compared to those that are used less. For example if Afghanistan was mentioned 12 times, and Pakistan twice, Afghanistan would be displayed significantly bigger.

If you're still a little unclear on all of this, a picture is worth a thousand words, so check out:; a cool utility for creating word clouds from your own text or a specified Web site. Even if you're hip to word clouds, head over to Wordle anyway. When you get there, give some thought to how you could use a word cloud in an NGO safety and security context. If nothing leaps to mind, here are a few ideas.

Identifying perceived threats and vulnerabilities - Before meeting with headquarters and field management staff for the first time, I always like to get a sense of what people feel are primary threats and vulnerabilities. Responses typically vary by job responsibilities and experience. Displaying a word cloud with the top five perceived threats and vulnerabilities (previously emailed) is a great and visually engaging way to start a conversation.

Reviewing security reports - In reviewing security reports from field offices I'll sometimes create a word cloud of the document to see if there's anything I may have overlooked. On more than one occasion, seeing something in a word cloud has prompted me to ask questions about an issue that wasn't apparent.

Analyzing emails - You can also use a collection of emails as your word cloud source, looking for things you may have missed. I remember a lengthy exchange of email messages once, about employee theft in a field office. Everyone was focused on the emotionally charged event, which involved a longtime and trusted staff member. I created a word cloud for the discussion thread which led me to an unreported and unrelated sexual harassment incident. The theft case had everyone's attention, and an oblique reference in an email had gone unnoticed.

I don't claim word clouds are magic (keep in mind that word frequency doesn't always correlate with significance). But I do find that Wordle and similar visualization tools give me a different way of looking at text data that can be surprisingly useful.



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