Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What's in a cloud?

Tracking connections can give us insight we never knew we had and the more connections you have to play with, the richer the insights you can make. As happens so often, the Internet has turned out to be a transforming connector and insight generator and one of its most intriguing forms has come in Word Clouds. You can see one on the right side of this blog. These clouds show the number of times a word is used on a site in a very simple way: the more times a word is used, the more prominently it is displayed in the cloud. You get a very cool visual picture of what the site really cares about. Take KRConnect as an example. As you might expect, the dominant words turn out to be my passions – Lovemarks, innovation, cool stuff, Attraction Economy, business, food and beverage, and storytelling. One way to track how your thinking evolves is to take snap shots of your Cloud and see how it changes over time. In my case, expect 'Winning Ugly' and 'focus' to get bigger.

What fascinates me about the potential of Word Clouds is not just what they show us, but what they show is missing. Take created by the United States Government to support the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Its job is to explain what this unprecedented effort to jumpstart the economy is about and to show how all those billions are being spent. It’s not the most exciting place in the world to visit, but it’s clear, it’s direct, and it’s there. Now, the Sunlight Foundation is a group that works towards more transparency in Government and they recently published a Word Cloud they’d derived from scraping The result as you can see is a massive concentration on data and information. The words that jump out at me are data, information, transparency, and reporting. I understand that there is an urgent need for information and data to be out in the open, but this seems to be a textbook example of the limitations government agencies carry with them. Where are the people? Wait, I can see them buried there, right up in the top left of the cloud.

Any sustainable recovery will only be possible when people’s confidence returns and for that they need emotion, inspiration, purpose and, yes, dreams. The biggest word in’s Cloud is 'data' and we know what the problem is with that: data just confuses most people and it certainly doesn’t inspire action. What they’re hanging out for are stories that give all this data some meaning in their lives. So let’s give a cheer for transparency in Government, but not mistake it for change or challenge, action, or success. It would be great if in six months had built its factual foundations and could reveal a Cloud studded with optimism, innovation, and energy. Until words and ideas like that illuminate a silver lining, this cloud will stay gray.