Thursday, February 28th, 2013...6:46 pm

Finding Lightning in the Cloud

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A picture is worth a thousand words, but could it also be worth a thousand searches or tweets to read?

A few weeks ago when Pope Benedict XVI resigned, I sat in my office with a Davidson student discussing the news story. Neither of us knew much more than the historical decision being made. Wanting to dig a bit deeper, I demonstrated a method of searching Twitter that I developed with Brian McGue, a Davidson student, who researched data mining with me last summer and fall.

The process is simple. First, you search Twitter on a topic of interest. For instance, I searched on the word “pope”. The tweets are then placed within a word cloud, which gives greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source of tweets. This was easily accomplished with the Word Cloud Generator. Our search returned the word cloud seen below.

This word cloud alone, gives a snapshot of the news coverage, at least as tweeted by the collective subscribers to Twitter. At this stage, we simply looked for other words of interest. The word “lightning” caught our eyes. We postulated that folks were tweeting on how quickly the news spread. To let Twitter inform us, we refined our search to be “pope lightning”. The following word cloud appeared:

We both looked at the image and suddenly remarked, “Wait a minute! Did lightning actually strike after the decision?” Was this a Twitter joke that went viral? Was it real? We quickly moved to Google News and searched again on “pope lightning”. This led us to the Huffington Post news story Pope Benedict XVI Resigns: Lightning Bolt Strikes St Peter’s Basilica As Vatican Confirms Pontiff’s Departure.

Indeed, lightning struck St. Peter’s Basilica after the pope’s announced resignation. We saw it in the cloud.

What topic interests you? Maybe look to see what’s trending on Twitter and see if you can see more clearly with your head in the clouds.

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