Ed Tech

Using search, book data to tell compelling stories

mouse and keyboard

Ngram Viewer, Google Trends, Google Correlate and other tools help students and teachers harness data from searches and books to tell great stories. (Photo via photoXpress)

In many ways, education is all about telling stories, right? What connects us and excites us about something new often has some sort of connection to stories.

History, literature, creative writing — they’re all about stories.

Math, science, foreign language, art, music — they’re the language we use to tell interesting stories.

Stories draw people in. They make us feel connected to material and help us place ourselves with it.

For centuries, our storytelling methods were fairly finite. We could pass stories along via written word, in pictures and by word of mouth.

Today, we can add “data” to our storytelling tools. Several free Google tools can give us powerful access to search terms and words used in books over time. That data can tell us a lot about what people were thinking about and talking about for centuries into the past.

These tools were part of one of the most popular sessions I attended at Google Teacher Academy in Austin, Texas in December. The session, led by Chris Aviles (the “Teched Up Teacher”), was called “21st Century Storytelling” (click for slides). Chris showed us how we — and our students — could tell stories based on all of this publicly available data from Google.

nGram Viewer

ngram viewer

An Ngram viewer graph of occurrences of “Albert Einstein,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and “Frankenstein” over two centuries. (Click image for larger view.)

After Google Teacher Academy, this was the new tool that I saw participants sharing more than anything else. nGram Viewer searches all of the words in Google Books, dating from the 1700s all the way to 2008. (Not sure if or when they’ll release more recent dates.) It displays a line graph to show how often your keywords (either single words or phrases) are found in books throughout time.

The example that loads when you go to the nGram Viewer site plots Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein on a graph. “Frankenstein,” the book by Mary Shelley, was published in 1818. But, according to the graph, the term experienced a huge spike in the 1970s.

Why? “Frankenstein,” the 1973 movie by Dan Curtis. Since then, the term has steadily grown until the 1990s.

And Sherlock Holmes? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective character first appeared in print in 1887, which is where the red “Sherlock Holmes” line comes off the baseline. The spike between 1920 and 1940? Likely caused by the 1922 silent film, “Sherlock Holmes,” directed by Albert Parker. Too bad that the data doesn’t extend beyond 2008 to see how the 2009 Guy Ritchie movie would have affected the data.

An example of storytelling with data.

Google Trends

A Google Trends page displaying top results of 2014. (Click image for larger view.)

A Google Trends page displaying top results of 2014. (Click image for larger view.)

This tool is geared more toward current events. Google Trends works from search terms entered in Google since 2004. It will use lists, maps and graphs to display:

  • trending searches
  • trending YouTube videos
  • popular results for common searches

For example, some of the top charts displaying for all of 2014 (and the top result) include:

  • people (Jennifer Lawrence)
  • GIFs (Miguel Herrera, coach of the Mexican national soccer team)
  • actor (Jared Leto)
  • actress (Jennifer Lawrence, again)
  • animals (pig)
  • athletes (Ray Rice)
  • author (Myles Munroe, the evangelist from the Bahamas who died in a plane crash)
  • beauty questions (How to get rid of acne)

With the “Explore” tool in Trends, searches can be tailored to location (even to specific locations within countries), time, specific categories and type of search (web, image, news, etc.).

More tools for telling stories in the last 10+ years.

Google Correlate

flu on correlate

A Google Correlate graph that compares “influenza-like illness (CDC)” and searches for “treat the flu.” (Click image to see larger view.)

If you want to dive deeper into the numbers, Google Correlate “finds search patterns which correspond with real-world trends” (per the Correlate site). Search terms can be graphed over time (weekly or monthly) or compared across states in the U.S. on a map. The example to the right plots “Influenza-like illness” reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the search term “treat the flu” over about 10 years. The spikes in results for both are pretty close together, showing that people did search for ways to treat the flu at the same time that the CDC reported cases of the flu.

This tool can get complex! Thankfully, Google has provided a tutorial, a frequently-asked questions page, and even a comic book to explain how it works!

Some other data storytelling tools:

Hot Trends — This tool displays popular search terms in a colorful matrix that can be customized (number of terms on the screen, location).

Google News Archive — Search for news articles archived online that date back as far as 1800.

Google Scholar — Search for content in scholarly literature, including articles, books, abstracts, court opinions, and more.

[reminder]What kinds of stories could be told with this data? What ideas do you have for using tools like these?[/reminder]

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Interested in having Matt present at your event or school? Contact him by e-mail!

Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

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