Data Visualizing For Dummies, Part 1

My attempts to visualize my own Twitter followers and their relationships didn’t turn out how I wanted it to. While it was a great lesson in learning about new visualization tactics and exposing myself to the work of Martin Hawksey, I wasn’t quite able to get a working image. It was, to put it mildly, frustrating. (More on that later.)

While perusing Hawksey’s blog, I came across an invention of his called TAGSExplorer. Using this Google Spreadsheet template that he had previously set up, you can then use TAGSExplorer to create a data visualization.

This tool is amazing and it could be called “Data visualizing for dummies.”

I put in the hashtag #cmgr, which stands for community manager. (I know this has nothing to do with education, but it’s a hashtag that is used a lot and would definitely get results.) It is in this Google doc.

The detailed instructions on Hawskey’s blog post:

Capturing the tweets

Use this Google Spreadsheet template.

For more reliable data collection it’s recommended that you follow the steps to get authenticated API access to Twitter search results and setup a ‘script trigger’ to automate collection. Here are instructions on how to do it:

  1. Open the TAGS Google Spreadsheet making a copy
  2. Register for an API key with Twitter at In the form these are the important bits:
  3. Once finished filling in the form and accepting Twitter’s terms and conditions you’ll see a summary page which includes a Consumer Key and Consumer Secret
  4. Back in the Google Spreadsheet select Twitter > API Authentication (you’ll need to select this option twice, the first time to authorise read/write access to the spreadsheet). Paste in your Consumer Key and Secret from the previous step and click ‘Save’ (if the Twitter menu is not visible click on the blue button to show it)
  5. From the spreadsheet select Tools > Script Editor … and then Run > authenticate and Authorize the script with Twitter using your Twitter account
  6. While still in the Script Editor window select Triggers > Current script’s triggers… and Add a new trigger. Select to run ‘collectTweets’ as a ‘Time-driven’ choosing a time period that suits your search (I usually collect 1500 tweets once a day, but increase to hourly during busy periods eg during a conference). Click ‘Save’
  7. Now close the Script Editor window. Back in the main spreadsheet on the Readme/Settings sheet enter the following settings (starting in cell B9):
    • Who are you = any web address that identifies you or your event
    • Search term = what you are looking for eg #jiscel11
    • Period = default
    • No. results = 1500 (this is the maximum Twitter allows)
    • Continuous/paged = continuous
  8. Click TAGS > Run Now! to check you are collecting results into a ‘Archive’ sheet
  9. To allow the results to be visualised from the spreadsheet select File > Publish to the web…You can choose to Publish All sheets or just the  Archive sheet. Make sure Automatically republish when changes are made is ticked and click Start publishing

I followed the instructions to the letter and it worked! Here is the data I got back from putting in the hashtag #cmgr.

This was much more successful. Then Hawksey includes instructions on how to use TAGSExplorer. You simply put in a Twitter hashtag and it visualises it for you.

Creating a public interactive visualisation of the archived tweets

  1. Copy the url of the spreadsheet you just created
  2. Visit and paste your spreadsheet url in the box, then click‘get sheet names’
  3. When it loads the sheet names leave it on the default ‘Archive’ and click ‘go’
  4. You now have a visualisation of your spreadsheet archive (click on nodes to delve deeper)
  5. To share the visualisation at the top right-click ‘link for this’ which is a permanent link (as your archive grows and the spreadsheet is republished this visualisation will automatically grow)

The visualization I created:

Hawksey’s tool also lets you explore the data. You can see who are the top tweeters or the top conversationalists. You can also click on a node and details are revealed about that particular person. Here you can see that @Historian has 6 connections and 30 tweets.

To be honest, this was actually where I started using Google Spreadsheet first to try and collect some Twitter data. “A way to archive and display Twitter hashtag chats” helpfully lays out how to install TAGS.

What I liked about this is that 1.) it worked and 2.) It was such a neat way to go about visualizing hashtags. It used a simple tool, Google Spreadsheets, and then using Hawksey’s TAGSExplorer, you could easily visualize the data.

Sometimes, I think coders and developers forget that learning this stuff is hard. We can’t all pick it up at the drop off a hat. If you are learning and constantly hitting road blocks, that can be frustrating. You might want to quit.

TAGSExplorers restored my faith. I know it’s an easy tool and all I had to do was type in a word. But it resulted in something tangible that I could show people. And that made me want to learn more, like how did Hawksey learn to do this?

This is the type of tool I would recommend reporters in newsroom play with. They won’t have to grab the developer sitting across the room for help and they might get a better sense of what data journalism is all about and how seeing data in different ways can open up how you tell a story.

Read Part 2: Delving Deeper.