Data Stories podcast: Episode 37, teaching visualisation

As ever it was a privilege to be invited to take part in the latest episode 37 of the Data Stories podcast. I joined Enrico and Moritz alongside Scott Murray to discuss the challenges of learning and teaching data visualisation.


Many thanks again to Enrico and Moritz for inviting me on the show for a fifth time!

Tasty visualisations from the Barcelona Data Cuisine

Data Cuisine is an experimental workshop investigating the creative possibilities at the intersection between food and data: “exploring food as a medium for data expression”. Between 10th and 13th of June, Moritz Stefaner, a man who needs no introduction, along with Dr Susanne Jaschko and chef Sebastian Velilla ran the second edition of the workshop in Barcelona (the first was in Helsinki in 2012) part of the Big Bang Data exhibition at CCCB, and in coordination with Sónar.


The focus of the experiment is to research creative ways to represent local open data in through the inherent qualities of food like color, form, texture, smell, taste, nutrition, origin etc. It is a truly multi-sensory approach to encoding data, something that I’ve highlighted previously as been a really interesting branch of the visualisation field.

The workshop is a collaborative research experience, blurring the boundaries between teachers and participants, data and food. At its end, an local data menu is created and publicly tasted.




Moritz and Susanne have just finished writing up details and publishing photos of the dishes made during this Barcelona workshop. Probably a good idea to not visit the site with an empty stomach.

Visits: A visualisation tool for location histories and photos

Visits is a new visualisation tool by Alice Thudt, Sheelagh Carpendale and Dominikus Baur that lets you browse your location histories and explore your trips and travels. The tool is based on a research project from the University of Calgary. You can find the corresponding publication here: A. Thudt, D. Baur, S. Carpendale – Visits: A Spatiotemporal Visualization of Location Histories, EuroVis 2013.


Based on an innovative interactive map-timeline the visualisation elegantly comprises a main map element that shows the bigger-picture view of the places you have visited with a series of sequenced circular map snippets that encode when and how long you have stayed in each location. You also then have the option to upload photos from Flickr to supplement the map-timeline with a visual slideshow story of your journey that can be shared with friends and family – and even complete strangers, should you wish.

You can learn more about the project here and, of course, the authors are keen to invite anyone to create their own ‘visit’ story.

Guest post: Using Mode to re-engineer data visualisations

Occasionally I invite folks to contribute guest posts to profile their work, ideas or knowledge. This guest post comes from Benn Stancil from a startup called Mode who have created a really interesting tool that allows you to reverse engineer analysis/visualisations in order to potentially take them in new directions. The product was opened to the public yesterday, so you can check it out and a few examples of the visualisations that people have built with it.

Can we learn from and build on each other’s visualizations?

Like so many others, I’ve long been fascinated by learning from data–and as a result, been an avid consumer of data visualizations. The explosion of data in recent years has fueled a similar explosion of beautiful and insightful visualizations, created by everyone from industry leaders like the New York Times and Guardian to undiscovered brilliance hidden in obscure corners of the internet.

Even the best visualizations, however, rarely answer all of a viewer’s questions. We often want to understand how the data was collected, how it would look if considered from a different angle, what story it would tell if combined with other data, or how the visualization was built. In other words, great visualizations not only answer questions, but inspire more.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to document and share enough information to answer these follow-up questions. Creators carry the burden of sharing their data sources, their analysis that aggregated and combined data, their visualization code, and many other details. And piecing this information together after the fact is equally burdensome for consumers. The bit of knowledge someone new could add by remixing the analysis–or the bit they could learn by better understanding the original–often hits a dead-end, no matter how inspiring the visualization.

Introducing Mode

In part because of my own personal frustration, I recently cofounded a company, called Mode, aimed at providing solutions to these challenges. Mode’s mission is to connect data and the people who analyze and visualize it. We’ve built a web-based tool that executes analysis, displays results, and renders fully custom visualizations all in one place. By saving, versioning, and packaging the entire workflow together, anyone who discovers the analysis can immediately click through the results to see the underlying data, the analysis, and how the visualization was created. Right now, we’re focused on supporting SQL for analysis and web languages (HTML, CSS, and Javascript) for visualizations, though we’re planning to adding R- and Python-based tools soon.


The above is a screenshot of a finished visualization. You can see the query, visualization code, and previous versions by clicking on the Query, Presentation, and Run History tabs above the graphic.

By organizing all of this information together in a simple package, people can immediately understand and add to visualizations without having to rebuild the work themselves. We’ve made this possible in one click–simply click clone on the screen above, and you’ll be working with with same visualization published by the original author, exactly where they left off.

When a piece of work is cloned, the original author not only maintains credit, but also sees who cloned their work and what they’re doing with it. This allows the community to push an analysis forward, without ever losing sight of the creator and without the creator losing sight of how their work is evolving.

Others can then working with the analysis and visualization in their own workspaces. They can even add their own data–Mode allows multiple creators’ data to be combined in a single visualization. Because all of this work happens in the browser, Mode doesn’t require setting up a development environment or finding a place to host the visualization.

Here is a screenshot of the presentation editor, where you can add custom visualization code and preview it.


Finally, we want people to be able to easily share their work. All visualizations in Mode can be shared via URL, or can be embedded anywhere on the internet, just like a YouTube video. The embedded visualizations, like the one below, can be fully interactive, and link back to all of the data and work.

We Want Your Advice

Our approach to making data visualizations more accessible is largely influenced by our own experiences as data analysts. Surely others, who have had different experiences and objectives, face other challenges or have other ideas for solutions.

We’d love to hear what you think of our direction and how we can tailor it to your needs. What problems have you had when collaborating on data visualizations? What are your biggest struggles, and how would you solve them? If you’d like to check out our approach, Mode is free to use and you can sign up here.

We’re looking forward to see what great work people can build with Mode – and perhaps more importantly, what we can learn from each other. The world is producing fascinating data at an unprecedented pace, on subjects ranging from air quality in Chicago, to taxi traffic in Seattle, to the tattoo trends in the NBA. Great technologies for producing visualizations, like D3, Raphaël, and R, are constantly improving. And we have many giants in the data visualization community to look up to. At Mode, our hope is to help all of us stand on their shoulders.

Beginning the journey towards book number two

A quick announcement to the broader visitorship out there, having briefly tweeted about it last week I am thrilled to have received approval to start work on my second book, which will be published by SAGE (one of the “world’s leading independent academic and professional publisher”, I’ll have you know).

I’m not going to share any details on the title or contents just yet but, as with all my endeavours, it will be aimed at covering in detail the practical craft of data visualisation (it won’t be a glossy coffee-table gallery of different works, for example) with a realistic target completion date being the latter part of 2015.

One of the main things that excites me about this project is that the publishers have stated their commitment to explore some great innovations in the relationship between print and digital form: not just in replicating a text digitally but about creating a digital companion to the printed content. I think that is needed in discussing this subject.

The second main thing that excites me is that the book WILL be printed in colour. Obvious, right? Well, not always, sadly…

My experiences from writing the first book were that it is a painful slog, fraught with mental blocks, anxieties about added-value, fears of mis-quoting or mis-referencing ideas, frustrations at trying to secure permissions for image usage etc. I think this quote astutely sums up the prospect:


Whilst I was satisfied with the content of my first book (not so much it’s form), I feel I have moved on considerably with so much more to say than I had the chance to share back then. I’m confident that, with the professional support SAGE will unquestionably provide me, this second title will truly be the book I have wanted to produce. I’ll keep you posted on progress…

Best of the visualisation web… April 2014

At the end of each month I pull together a collection of links to some of the most relevant, interesting or thought-provoking web content I’ve come across during the previous month. Here’s the latest collection from April 2014.


Includes static and interactive visualisation examples, infographics and galleries/collections of relevant imagery.

Social Progress Index | ‘The Social Progress Index offers a rich framework for measuring the multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing.’

Enigma Labs | Nice animated/interactive project showing ‘US Daily Temperature Anomalies 1964-2013’

National Geographic | A range of videographics explaining various matters relating to food around the world

Stanford Kay | Infographic showing the global carbon ‘foot’print. Labelling might be an issue but I like the attempted metaphor.

Twitter | From Brilliant Ads, a very clever ambient/visualisation/ad concept about the consequences of smoking

Washington Post | ‘Where every person lives and works in Manhattan’

Visualizing | Nice curated gallery by Manuel Lima looking at a range of projects that visualise urban patterns

Economist | A new form of interactive static visualisation: representing the odds of being murdered in 5 countries via the chance of a dart hitting the same display. We clearly now must see more dart vis, this needs to be a thing.

Jonathan Hull | Jonathan uses the periodic table framework to good effect, visualising the abundance of elements in the universe, ocean, earth etc.

Washington Post | ‘The depth of the problem’ possibly my first liked tower graphic as it perfectly captures the ludicrous depth of the search for the Malaysian airliner’s black box

Visual Loop | ‘This is Visual Journalism: Special edition dedicated to the awarded infographics at Malofiej 22’

Bloomberg | ‘How Americans Die’ – the latest interactive story from the Bloomberg Visual team

Mapsbynik | Mapping the census blocks where nobody lives in the US

Sensory Maps | Kate launches her latest ‘Smellmap’ – this time for Amsterdam

das Referenz | Typically elegant and briliant work from Raureif to create a free reader app for Wikipedia. Also check out the in-depth design process article link.

The Upshot | ‘A Map of Baseball Nation’ – Facebook fans by zip code.

Fathom | ‘A look at the history of Miles Davis’ career and collaborations according to his (400) recording sessions as documented by the Jazz Discography Project.’

Washington Post | Visual article with some wonderful interactive/animated devices detailing the ‘intensive care’ required for the damaged dome of the US Capitol.

New York Times | ‘How Minorities Have Fared in States With Affirmative Action Bans’

WYNC | ‘Tracking Tickets for Dangerous Driving, by Precinct’

SCMP | Really nice poster quality piece that depicts the biggest players through the history of the Oscars

National Geographic | ‘Nine Cities That Love Their Trees’

Washington Post | ‘Looming: A delayed wallop of pollen’. Nice Gantt-chart style graphic


The emphasis on these items is that they are less about visualisation images and are more article-focused, so includes discussion, discourse, interviews and videos

FiveThirtyEight | Interesting exploration of the ongoing exclusion of women in Hollywood, with analysis of the Bechdel test

The Guardian | ‘Why Google Maps gets Africa wrong’

Visual Loop | ’90 dataviz Tumblr blogs to follow: The ultimate list of Tumblr blogs about data visualization, cartography and data journalism’

Smashrun | Smashrun is an “analytical platform for runners” and contains some terrific looking visualisation work. Browse through the blog to see some of the analysis (the link provided here).

The Why Axis | We’ve had a good chunk of articles and discourse about storytelling, Bryan collates them in one place here…

Eager Eyes | …but here are the ones specifically published during April, starting with Robert’s piece ‘Story: a definition’

Neoformix | Here’s Jeff Clark’s piece ‘A Short Reflection on Storytelling in Data Visualization’

The Functional Art | Alberto also wades in with ‘Annotation, narrative, and storytelling in infographics and visualization’

Fell in Love with Data | Enrico might have been having a bad day at work 🙂 – ‘My (stupid) fear we may, one day, become irrelevant’

Telling Information | Nice short summary from Lulu about her take aways from Malofiej 22…

Earth Observatory | …and here’s Rob Simmon’s more in depth write up from his experience as a judge at Malofiej 22

Chartio | An Interview with Scott Murray, Code Artist… D3 Hero and other such monikers

Stanford | Paper from EuroVis 2013: ‘Selecting Semantically-Resonant Colors for Data Visualization’. Surfacing again now mainly due to…

HBR | This article by Sharon Lin and Jeff Heer: ‘The Right Colours Make Data Easier to Read’

Junk Charts | ‘When to use the start-at-zero rule’

Medium | ‘(Re)defining multimedia journalism: New storytelling forms inspire us’

WonkViz | Less about the subject or analysis, more about the **edit** at the bottom for the importance of misleading interpretations

JND | Article from Don Norman: ‘Predicting too early is as bad as not predicting at all. In making predictions, getting the timing right is as important as getting the idea right.’

Eager Eyes | ‘Review: Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees’

Source | ‘Meet Bloomberg’s dataview: Iterating toward a reusable animated chart flow’

Storytelling With Data | Cole discusses the difference between exploratory and explanatory analysis

nGrain | Really smart demonstration of solutions for ‘looking beyond two dimensions’

Source | ‘Introducing Fourscore: Speedy sentiment-grid making from WNYC + Al Jazeera America’

Learning & Development

These links cover presentations, tutorials, learning opportunities, case-studies, how-tos etc.

Graphitti | Detailed process narrative about Tom MacInnes attempts at ‘his’ first interactive map.

Dashing 3js | Comprehensive set of tutorials and screencasts to help you learn how to make data visualisations with D3.js

The Information Lab | Quick tutorial for ‘Advanced Map Visualisation in Tableau using Alteryx’

Dataplusscience | The first Sankey diagram I’ve seen attempted in Tableau, with a set of notes explaining how it was done

Scribd | Golan Levin’s presentation from Malofiej 22 – ‘Information Arts, Critical Making’

Stat Hunting | A very good, honest and constructive reflection from Steve Fenn about his experiences of taking and responding to (quite brutal) criticism of one of his pieces of work.

Data Remixed | ‘Dimension Line Charts: a (slight) variation on arrow charts’ – nice article from Ben Jones about the issue of (mis)interpreting arrowheads

Lena Groeger | Slides from Lena terrific talk at OpenVis 2014 about the ‘wee things’ in visualisation design

FastCo Labs | ‘The Five Best Libraries For Building Data Visualizations’ with contributions from Moritz Stefaner, Mr D3 Hero, Jan Willem Tulp, Benjamin Wiederkehr and Erik Cunningham

Vimeo | Think I might have shared before but worth another go if so, ‘Webstock ’13: Mike Monteiro – How Designers Destroyed the World’

Peltier Tech Blog | Nice excel tutorial from Jon for ‘Axis Labels That Don’t Block Plotted Data’

PJIM | Always a good read: Volume VI, Issue 2 of the ‘Parson Journal for Information Mapping’

The Why Axis | ‘Today we have better access to health information than ever before but this means little without greater understanding. Visualizing Health is a weapon in the fight to create a culture of health.’

Subject News

Includes announcements within the field, brand new sites, new (to me) sites, new books and generally interesting developments.

Mapbox | Launching Mapbox outdoors – ‘A beautiful new map designed for outdoor adventures.’

Density Design | Updated version of RAW

Visci | Newly discovered site, the impressive ‘Visual Science’: – “a media production service, providing graphical and animation solutions to the industrial, academic and educational sectors” – check out the showreel

TargetProcess | Newly discovered tool for Visual Management: ‘Software to plan and track any process, including Scrum, Kanban and your own.’

Amazon | New book: ‘The Best American Infographics 2014’ edited by Gareth Cook (Disclaimer: I was a member of the ‘brains trust’)

Information is Beautiful Awards | Revealing the winners of the ‘Human Cost’ visualisation challenge

Software Studies Initiative | Congratulations to Lev Manovich and his team for securing one of the very rare Twitter Data grants, here’s the abstract for their proposed work


Any other items that may or may not be directly linked to data visualisation but might have a data/technology focus or just seem worthy of sharing

BBC News | ‘Bristol artist creates hand-drawn maps of the city’

FastCo Design | ‘A Top Nike Designer Rebrands Game Of Thrones’

Offbeat | Unusual data source but might interest one or two ‘World Football Statue Database’

YouTube | Archive of the great Numberphile videos – ‘videos about numbers’

Vox | ‘Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules, explained’

Washington Post | Oh dear, America, looks like you’ve been taking the dart from above into your ‘guessing where Ukraine is’

The Guardian | ‘What would football managers see if they wore Google Glass?’

Emily Garfield Art | ‘Emily Garfield creates intricate maps of imaginary places that explore the origins of cities and the function of maps themselves.’

Interface Vision | A HUGE collection of examples/images of Visual Programming Languages