A Patrick Mahomes word cloud, strengths and weaknesses

The season-opening NFL broadcast included a word cloud of descriptions of Chief’s quarterback Patrick Mahomes from his teammates:

On the broadcast, they noted that “leader” was mentioned the most times and several people mentioned “smart” and “competitive.” And, since this came right after a conversation of Mahomes’ record contract, it was noted that no teammate said “rich.”

A few thoughts on this graphic:

  1. It highlights the popularity and/or spread of word clouds. If it makes it to a football broadcast, it is all throughout the United States.
  2. It remains a way to highlight words or themes across a series of interviews or texts. It can take time to relay thoughts from multiple interactions; the word cloud tries to summarize the concepts. But…
  3. The size of the words do not easily convey their frequency in this particular graphic. Leader is clearly the biggest, competitive and smart are somewhere in the middle, and then there are a lot of other words. Yet, the length of certain words – “courageous” or “extraordinary” – take up a lot of space even if they were just mentioned once.
  4. The colors of the word cloud are tied to the Chiefs’ colors. But with the background changing a bit behind the words (“add a dynamic background to that boring word cloud!”), it can be hard to read some of the words in red (see “smart” above).
  5. Without knowing the number of interviews or how many total descriptors were given, it is hard to know how many words stand out.

An interesting choice of graphic and still some work to do to make this even a better presentation of data.

Improving the word cloud: NYT adds rates of word usage and comparisons between groups

I’m generally not a big fan of word clouds but one of students recently pointed out to me an example from the New York Times that makes some improvements: looking at the rates of word usage at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. (Click through to see the interactive graphic.) Here is how I think this improves on a typical word cloud:

1. It doesn’t display word frequency but rather the rate of the word usage. Thus, we get an idea of how often the words were used in comparison to all the words that were said. Frequencies by themselves don’t tell you much but this helps put them into a context. (A note: I would like the graphic to include the total word usage for each convention so we have a quick idea of how many words were spoken).

2. The display also makes a comparison between the two political parties so we can see the relative word usage across two groups. This could run into the same problem as frequencies – just because one group uses the term more doesn’t necessarily mean they think it is more important – but we can start getting some clues into the differences in how Republicans and Democrats made a case for their party.

Overall, this is an improvement over the typical word cloud (make your own at wordle.net) and helps us start analyzing the tens of thousands of words spoken at the conventions. Of course, we would need a more complete analysis, probably including multiple coders, to really get at what was conveyed through the words (and that doesn’t even get at the visuals, body language, presentation).

Pew again asks for one-word survey responses regarding budget negotiations

I highlighted this survey technique in April but here it is again: Pew asked Americans to provide a one-word response to Congress’ debt negotiations.

Asked for single-word characterizations of the budget negotiations, the top words in the poll — conducted in the days before an apparent deal was struck — were “ridiculous,” “disgusting” and “stupid.” Overall, nearly three-quarters of Americans offered a negative word; just 2 percent had anything nice to say.

“Ridiculous” was the most frequently mentioned word among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. It was also No. 1 in an April poll about the just-averted government shutdown. In the new poll, the top 27 words are negative ones, with “frustrating,” “poor,” “terrible,” “disappointing,“ “childish,” “messy” and “joke” rounding out the top 10.

And then we are presented a word cloud.

On the whole, I think this technique can suggest that Americans have generally unfavorable responses. But the reliance on particular terms is better for headlines than it is for collecting data. What would happen if public responses were split more evenly: what words/responses would then be used to summarize the data? The Washington Post headline (and Pew Research as well) can now use forceful and emotional words like “ridiculous” and “disgusting” rather than the more accurate numerical figures than about “three-quarters of Americans offered a negative word.” Why not also include an ordinal question (strongly disapprove to strongly approve) about American’s general opinion of debt negotiations in order to corroborate this open ended question?

This is a possibly interesting technique in order to take advantage of open ended questions without allowing respondents to give possibly lengthy responses. Open ended questions can produce a lot of data: there were over 330 responses in this survey alone. I’ll be interested to see if other organizations adopt this approach.

Pew using word frequencies to describe public’s opinion of budget negotiations

In the wake of the standoff over a federal government shutdown last week, Pew conducted a poll of Americans regarding their opinions on this event. One of the key pieces of data that Pew is reporting is a one-word opinion of the proceedings:

The public has an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the budget negotiations that narrowly avoided a government shutdown. A weekend survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Washington Post finds that “ridiculous” is the word used most frequently to describe the budget negotiations [29 respondents], followed by “disgusting,” [22 respondents] “frustrating,” [14 respondents] “messy,” [14 respondents] “disappointing” [13 respondents] and “stupid.” [13 respondents]

Overall, 69% of respondents use negative terms to describe the budget talks, while just 3% use positive words; 16% use neutral words to characterize their impressions of the negotiations. Large majorities of independents (74%), Democrats (69%) and Republicans (65%) offer negative terms to describe the negotiations.

The full survey was conducted April 7-10 among 1,004 adults; people were asked their impressions of the budget talks in interviews conducted April 9-10, following the April 8 agreement that averted a government shutdown.

I would be hesitant about leading off an article or headline (“Budget Negotiations in a Word – “Ridiculous”) with these word frequencies since they generally were used by few respondents: the most common response, “ridiculous,” was only given by 2.9% of the survey respondents (based on the figures here of 1,004 total respondents). I think the better figures to use would be the broader ones about negative responses where 69% used negative terms and a majority of all political stripes used a negative descriptor.

You also have to dig into the complete report for some more information. Here is the exact wording of the question:

PEW.2A If you had to use one single word to describe your impression of the budget negotiations in Washington, what would that one word be? [IF “DON’T KNOW” PROBE ONCE: It can be anything, just the first word that comes to mind…] [OPEN END: ENTER VERBATIM RESPONSE]

Additionally, the full report says that this descriptor question was only asked of 427 respondents on April 9-10 (so my above percentage should be altered: it should be 29/427 = 6.8%). So this is a smaller sample answering this particular question; how generalizable are the results? And the most common response to this question is the other category with 202 respondents. Presumably, the “others” are mostly negative since we are told 69% use negative terms. (As a side note, why not separate out the “don’t knows” and “refused”? There are 45 people in this category but these seem like different answers.)

One additional thought I have: at least this wasn’t put into a word cloud in order to display the data.

A word cloud as an accurate information graphic

There are many ways to visually present data or statistics. One issue can arise when parts of graphs or images are not displayed in the correct proportions. Does using a word cloud fall into these difficulties?

Gallup has put together a word cloud of American’s perceptions about the federal government. Some phrases, such as “too big” and “corrupt” are much bigger. Some words are on their sides such as “good” and “terrible.”

Overall, I would say the word cloud is probably not the best choice in this situation. It is hard to judge the most popular responses and the relative proportions of each response. While one can quickly pick up that the majority of responses were negative, it is not a very precise graphic.