Data Stories podcast: Episode 4 guest appearance!

This is not a post so much as a pointer to the just-released-this-minute Episode 4 of the Data Stories podcast with Enrico, Moritz and me as an invited guest. In this episode we do a reflection on Malofiej20, discussing the judging process, detailing the conference talks and generally our week long experience at the event.

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

Talk slides: My Malofiej20 talk

Below you will find an embedded slideshare version of the slides used in my Malofiej talk. I’m often reluctant to share slides from presentations because they aren’t documents, they are visual prompts to assist a talk. So when they are let loose in the wild, they lose that context and narrative. However, on this occasion I’m going to share them because I’m still buzzing about the event.

But you have to promise one thing – if you’re going to the Big Data Con in Germany on 17th April, close your eyes because I will be using the similar content/structure.

Visualisation marathon winner shares his experiences

Back in November 2011 you may recall Visualizing.org ran a number of visualisation marathon events for students to compete in 24 hour competitions. Having attended and spoken at the London event I felt qualified to share my thoughts on the event shortly after.

In February, Enrico published a post on his great Fell In Love With Data blog expressing his general dissatisfiaction with the outcome of the contest overall. I recommend you take a read of this post, the comments and the discussions that it triggered.

In order to get a different perspective on this contest I invited Kyle Foreman, a PhD student at Imperial College, part of the winning team at the London marathon, to share his own reflections on the event.

Background

I’ve come to visualization in a very roundabout way. I was a psychology and neuroscience major as an undergraduate, then I did a master’s degree and fellowship revolving around global health statistics. My job during the fellowship was to write statistical models for predicting global mortality due to specific diseases and conditions (e.g. maternal mortality and malaria). As part of that work, I dealt with a large, multi-dimensional dataset (40M+ observations, stratified by country, year, age, sex, disease, type of study). During model development, every time I made a change I would generate thousands and thousands of graphs to try to evaluate the model performance along all the different dimensions. And if in the process we identified a datapoint that was clearly wrong, we then had to go back to our 40M observations and figure out where the problem had come from.

I quickly tired of making gigantic PDF files every day, so I looked into web based visualizations and settled on Protovis. I had never done web design before, but there were plenty of tutorials and resources online to get started. I eventually built an ugly but functional application for viewing any desired slice of the dataset, mousing over to see all the related metadata for a datapoint, and displaying various model fits over the data.

It improved the workflow so much that creating similar visualization/modeling tools became a major part of my work. And although I started making visualizations out of necessity, I came to enjoy the process of making useful and attractive displays of my results as much or perhaps more than working on the underlying statistics. As such, I’ve been heavily integrating visualization dashboards into my Biostatistics PhD dissertation, and I’ve been entering various visualization contests when the underlying topic strikes my interest.

As for the other members of the team, we had never actually met before the contest. Peter and Cristina are both undergrads in Imperial’s computer science department. Peter has a lot of experience with various projects and consulting jobs he’s done, and Cristina has interned at Facebook. Fan got added to our team the morning of the competition because the other participants from his school had failed to show up. I think his major is Information Design, but he had never done any data visualization before.

The visualization itself

Since we hadn’t met until the day of the event, we hadn’t done any preparation at all. But honestly, I’m not sure how much it would’ve helped – without knowing what the challenge is, it would’ve been hard to lay useful groundwork beforehand.

The first thing we did was spend an hour or so reading through the questionnaire the dataset was derived from, brainstorming ideas, and making sketches; at this point we were mostly doing this independently, aside from asking each other clarifying questions and such. The goal was just to familiarize ourselves with all the data in front of us. Then we spent some time as a group discussing what we found (potentially) interesting in the data – what would make a good story, what could be visualized in a cool way, what was hidden in the gigantic dataset, etc. We batted around a lot of ideas, settling on showing how different demographic groups had different feelings towards the Olympics.

We decided to cluster the dozens of questions into five different categories for a simple reason – so that we could use the Olympic rings motif in the final product. Honestly, the data probably more easily leant itself to 4 categories, but we stretched it to 5 because sometimes the design opportunities are just too hard to pass up. Once we had decided on that, the rest of it just sort of fell into place – a donut chart for each category, colored like the Olympic logo, with a menu for showing different demographic groups.

At this point, we sort of split up – Fan began grouping the survey questions into groups and weighting them, Peter wrote some software to derive all the necessary statistics from the dataset, Cristina worked on the chord diagram which shows relationships between different categories, and I began work on the donut charts. Once Peter and Fan prepared the data, they began helping with coding the visualizations itself.

Cristina and I worked with made up data to start, so that while Peter and Fan compiled the actual statistics we could still be productive. I think our ability to work in parallel like this is the only thing that enabled us to get everything accomplished by the next morning.

The thing that really makes everything work – the animated transitions between the donut charts and chord diagram – almost didn’t come together. We had built the two pieces in parallel, so reconciling them at the end wasn’t easy. I don’t think we got everything glued together until about 10am. That left us with two hours, during which we decided to hack together a quick walkthrough/tutorial, which I think helped clarify to the user what they were seeing.

The event

I think this was the first total all-nighter I had pulled since my exams as an undergrad in 2008 – even then I would normally sneak in at least an hour or two of sleep. While it was good to see I can still work for 24 hours straight if need be, it’s not something I intend to repeat until the next Visualization Marathon. One of our teammates was about ready to fall asleep at the keyboard by about 7am and went home.

The coolest thing about the event was that the groups all had such different backgrounds. There were design students that had very little statistical background but could make the data look absolutely beautiful. Our team was more towards the technical/statistical side of things, so we definitely drew inspiration from how aesthetic some of the projects around us and displayed during the talks were.

Even within my own team, I was exposed to useful new ideas. For instance, I’m a statistician and all my CS/web design skills I’ve just sort of picked up along the way, so I had never seen how a real web developer structures a project. Working with Peter taught me a lot about best practices for web development, which I’ve put to great use in subsequent projects.

My advice for future teams is to come up with a workplan that allows everyone to contribute, ideally in parallel. There’s a lot to be done and only 24 hours to do it in, so organizing yourselves such that everyone can be accomplishing something at once is crucial to success.

Re: fellinlovewithdata.com’s comments

I totally agree that a visualization should be useful in addition to attractive. That’s partly a result of my background (which I rambled on about a lot up there^) – I came to visualization out of necessity as a statistician, so I would rather have a visualization that is a bit ugly but clearly communicates the data than a beautiful design that I can’t make sense of.

I think a 24 hour marathon is a useful adjunct to Visualizing.org’s (and other sites’) other longer term contests. Yes, you can of course do a better job visualizing something over a month than in a day. But the marathon format accomplishes other things that longer contests don’t lend themselves as well to:

Personal reflections on Malofiej 20

As the occasionally elusive Pamplonan sun sets on Malofiej 20, I wanted to share my experiences of these past seven days which have formed the best week of my professional life to date.

 
What is Malofiej?

For those of you reading who are unaware of Malofiej, it is the premier gathering for the world’s newspaper and magazine infographic artists and a celebration of their work.

The event is held in Pamplona, northern Spain at the School of Communication of the University of Navarra. It runs from a Sunday through to a Friday every March. This year was the 20th anniversary of the event, established in recognition of the Argentinian infographic pioneer Alejandro Malofiej.

The event comprises three elements – the Malofiej awards judging process runs alongside the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ workshop and then, on Wednesday evening, the World Infographics Summit commences.

The ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ workshop is a two-day workshop for students or young professionals to fine-tune their craft through a hands-on coaching session from some of the most esteemed information graphic experts in the field, namely John Grimwade, Juan Velasco, Geoff McGhee and Alberto Cairo. I had no involvement in the event so won’t offer any reflections other than to say if you are a budding infographics design student then you should seriously consider allowing yourself to take part in this unique experience.

The Summit involves two days of back-to-back presentations from speakers on the Jury panel and additional VIP guests covering a wide range of inspiration subjects. Others will be better placed and more strongly motivated to write a summary of the talks but I have to say, whether it was by design or by luck, the blend of topics and the variety of presentational styles was a real treat. So many inspiring people and so much to learn – in itself it is the best conference I have ever been to and it was a sincere pleasure to just share the stage with everyone else.

 

Golden Ticket

Speaking from within the data visualisation field, Malofiej is an event which perhaps doesn’t quite pop-up on everyone’s radar. It really depends on the specific subject circles you find yourself operating within.

My awareness of the event was achieved through exposure to people like Gert Neilsen and Chiqui Esteban. A further layer of interest came from witnessing the diverse strands of reaction to the best in show award achieved by Amanda Cox/New York Times with the ‘Ebb and Flow of box office takings‘ back in 2009.

I would concede I haven’t been immersed in the history of Malofiej or felt a particular sense of belonging to the very specialist world of information graphics. However, when I received the ‘golden ticket’ invitation from Javier Errea, the event’s principle organiser and figurehead, I was fully aware of the gravity of the event and the great privilege it was to have been asked to attend, speak and fulfil the role of jury member.

 

Jury Duty

The judging and presentation of the Malofiej awards is the event’s raison d’etre. During the leading weeks and months a call is issued throughout the world’s newspaper and magazine industry for infographic submissions covering all sizes of organization and all sections of their publications. For a small fee these pieces are entered, collated and organized under a wide range of category headings for the judging panel to evaluate and establish the medal-worthy entrants.

The jury is made up of experts and celebrated practitioners from a range of disciplines in or around the infographics industry. Aside from the prestige and profile of the anniversary event, this year’s jury was particular notable for its diversity and Javier explained this was a continued attempt to keep the jury as representative of the intersecting subject areas as possible. This would ensure the variety of perspectives and opinions are as rich as possible as the world surrounding infographic design evolves.

Joining me on this year’s jury was Anne Gerdes, Nigel Holmes, Andrew Vande Moere, Robert Kosara, Moritz Stefaner, Sheila Pontis, Ginny Mason, Bryan Christie, Carl DeTorres, Sergio Peçanha, Matthew Bloch, Mario Tancón and Gonzalo Peltzer. You can read each person’s short biographies on the Malofiej poster.

The process of judging commences on Sunday at 9am and runs through to Wednesday lunch time. That is the fixed start and end point but the commitment of hours spent judging in between these points is dictated by the progress of assessment. When you are faced with 1,513 entries split between static (about 1200) and online submissions this means most evenings finished around 8pm. It is an especially intense and demanding process. You don’t just simply ‘get through’ the volume of entries, you take the weight of responsibility that comes with judging any contest very seriously. You also identify strongly with each and every entrant, appreciating the demands and hurdles they would have gone through.

As I was on the static panel I’ll just talk about the process of judging for that side of things but I want to share a scene which captures the rather lonely isolation that comes with having to judging nearly 300 online entries (in this case Moritz and Andrew captured hard at work):

 

‘Fish and Chips’

The first round involves elimination. Each jury works independently to assess each submission and decide if it is of sufficient quality to go to the second round and potentially be considered for a medal. If you don’t think the piece is worthy of going through you drop a small chip/token into a slit on the underneath of an upturned plastic cup. This process gave rise to the term ‘fish and chips’. This approach allows the voting progress to be hidden and the independence of opinion is maintained. No talking or discussions are allowed and the student volunteers – whose dedication, kindness, professionalism and warmth were a wonderful added ingredient to the week – are quick to politely reprimand those who stray!

With ten members of the static panel, any pieces that received five or more votes were excluded. The exception was if there were any categories for which jury members may have a conflict of interest (ie. their publication or even their work submitted). In these cases they would be asked to leave the area and the voting threshold would be modified accordingly.

I don’t know the individual statistics but I believe around 75% of entries from round 1 were eliminated. Due to the time available and the volume required to judge it is admittedly quite an instinctive process – you can’t afford to spend too much time immersing yourself in a single piece. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes it is quick and easy, most times it is less so. You also have to remain open and fresh to the judgment of repeated graphic subjects, although that doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally find the same faces just too much to bear time and time again!

The second round switches the voting on its head. This time you drop in a chip if you believe it is worthy of a medal. Once again a similar threshold is applied and after each category is completed, those that go through to a third round are immediately considered for a medal.

Round three is the first occasion where discussion, debate and opinion exchange are allowed and encouraged. It is here where you tap into the richness of knowledge and perspective from the varied judging panel. Opinions are refined, a more considered assessment of each piece is possible and, at the end, a show-of-hands voting count is undertaken to establish the medal awarded.

 

Awards

A really detailed and helpful account of the gold-winning entries are presented by Jonathon Berlin on the SND website so I won’t go into the winners nor the reasons for their awards. There is also a full list of all medallist entries on the Malofiej site.

What I want to focus on instead is something that is really important for those reading who may have had an entry judged.

Firstly, no jury member who represents an organization whose piece is being judged takes part in any part of the voting nor even in the discussions. They are banished to a far-off corner of Pamplona and only summoned back when their input is independent.

Secondly, to achieve any sort of medal is a significant, noteworthy achievement. To secure a bronze, you need to obtain 70% of the judging vote to agree on its quality. A silver medal requires 80% and a gold 90% agreement. For any designer to pick up any medal is fantastic and there should be no sense whatsoever that anything less than a gold is a failure – a bronze or a silver medal represents a wonderful outcome and recipients should be really proud of themselves.

 

Firing Squad

The presentation of the winning pieces to the Summit’s delegates was perhaps the least comfortable part of the week. We were invited to announce the gold medals and best in show winners and use the platform to express the reasoning behind our selections. I have to say it was delivered in a less than satisfactory way, perhaps too organic and unstructured, and there just seemed to be an underwhelming reaction to our selections. It did feel like we were in front of a firing squad whose weapon of choice was indifferent silence.

The reason for this appears to be the continued dominance of the New York Times and, to a lesser extent, National Geographic. Focusing on the New York Times, the basic fact is this: they are the best in the business and continue to be.

Organisations must recognize that it is much harder to get to the top than it is to stay there. Once you have a winning formula, that is exactly what you have, so you stick to it. Unlocking the secrets to that formula is they key. Future success at Malofiej isn’t about other organisations copying what the NYT do, it is about emulating them. It is about learning what it is about their design editorial approach, the restraint and elegance of their visual identity, the commitment to journalistic clarity, the courage to deploy graphics across generous and treasured page space and, of course, the technical ability to churn these things out at an incredible rate. Forget how many people they have at their disposal and focus on the stream of quality these people are responsible for.

Additionally, one must remember that Gold is not the only currency in town. As I have said above, the achievements of those many oragnisations and individuals who secured silver and bronze medals is a wonderful outcome. It is just a shame that the focus on this presentation session is on just the individual gold medalists. I would suggest, as many others expressed independently afterwards, that we need to celebrate the achievements of these winners more openly than we currently do. The presentation session should begin with an acknowledgement of the variety of style, projects and organisations who have secured these awards so that the tip of the iceberg that is the gold medal winners doesn’t seem so narrow. I think that was the main issue at the root of the muted response.

What I cannot accept is any accusation that the jury just arrive, go through the motions, and then succumb to the big name designers and big name oragnisations. That is simply not the case. The integrity and quality of the individuals on that panel simply could never let that happen. It is an intensely thought over and fought over process, one which arrives at a carefully considered and crafted set of results which everyone on that panel will stand by.

 

Final Reflections

In my introduction I described this event as the best week of professional life. That sounds quite a lofty statement but I can’t think of any sequence of my career that has resulted in so much fun, so much inspiration, so much reward and so many new friends and contacts.

The group of people involved in the jury, especially, was a frankly brilliant collection of people: uniquely gifted, intelligent, humble, funny and unwaveringly more interested in other people than themselves. I hope this is a shared view across the team but I felt we gelled wonderfully well, the camaraderie was excellent, and everyone’s opinion was valued and treated with equal weight throughout.

Sheila Pontis (aka ‘La Presidenta’) was given the unenviable role of jury president and was a constant binding and leading force from the minute we started to the final presentation of awards at the Friday closing dinner. As an English and Spanish speaker she was absolutely key to the smooth operation of the week’s activities and everyone was so appreciative of the personal contribution Sheila made to Malofiej 20.

I could go on and on about the strength of bond within this team and pick out some highlights of my impressions from each person on the jury, but I won’t – besides I think Bryan Christie will be doing this so check his blog for updates. All I will say that I truly hope and believe we will stay friends for many years to come.

If you find yourself in the position I was last week you will be a very lucky person indeed. And, Javier, if you are reading this far down, please consider me ready and available for any future Malofiej event – thank you.

 

Malofiej, Big Data Con and other site news

Malofiej 20

Back in December I expressed my great delight at having been invited to judge, speak and attend the 20th Malofiej Infographics World Summit. Well, time has sped by and on Saturday I will be flying over to Pamplona to kick off this prestigious week long event – as Robert Kosara put it, the Pulitzer Prize of Information Graphics.
You’ll see the fabulous array of speakers by clicking on the image below to access the main event’s programme of talks and presentations. I’m really looking forward to meeting in person many of the heroes and heroines of the visualisation and information graphics field.

The title of my own talk will be “Showcase of data visualisation techniques for thriving in the age of Big Data” and this is an abstract of what I’ll be covering and why:

In this era of Big Data, with the recording, storage and access to vast quantities of data increasing at such an incredible rate, the opportunity for newspapers and other media organisations to extract key insight and unlock the stories contained within also increases. Facilitating such enlightenment is the objective of data visualisation. In this presentation we will be showcasing some of the best contemporary visualisation projects from prominent designers across the globe, with a focus on identifying the most effective techniques, methods and resources being used today.

During the course of the week I will be trying to keep a frequent update of insights, discoveries and thoughts emerging from this event. I may even try experiment with some live blogging during the talks, but we’ll see how that idea develops…

Big Data Con

As well as Malofiej, in the next few weeks I will be giving a similar talk at the Big Data Con event in Mainz, Germany. It sounds a really good event but due to commitments either side of the day on which I am speaking (17th April) I will be jetting in and back out of Frankfurt within the day and so will not be able to get the most value out of the great set of speakers and topics.

General Site News

Updates and blogging frequency has been patchy over the past few weeks as my schedule has been jam packed. It is very frustrating because there has been so much good content, new projects and general developments to base posts around. Apart from the Malofiej posts there will likely be continued irregularity to my posting through to April. However, from mid-April onwards a number of factors in my currently rather hectic life will clear up and you will start to see much more prolific activity. I am also going to be working hard during the Spring/Summer months to put into place a brand new site design which will breathe even more life into things. Watch this space…

Charity Walk

Finally, I generally prefer not to merge normal life with visualisation life, but I’m going to make a brief exception for this. On December 15th 2010 a former colleague, Matt, passed away after a prolonged battle with an exceptionally rare form of cancer. Aged only 31 he had barely begun living his life and his best years were ahead.

On May 5th I will be joining a group of Matt’s former colleagues and undertaking the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge, a walking event that involves scaling the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, covering a 24.5 miles distance in under 12 hours. Below is a not-entirely-genuine artist’s impression of the walk’s typical terrain:

We will be raising money for Matt’s favourite charity Operation Smile, a UK based charity which provides free reconstructive surgery to children in the developing world born with cleft lips & palates.

If anybody reading this wishes to make a donation, you can visit the dedicated Just Giving fundraising site which has been set up as a hub for the entire team to build funds. You’re contribution will be hugely appreciated. Even if you are not in position to make a donation, then just a visit to the Operation Smile site to increase awareness of their work will be fantastic.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

I’m always reluctant to publish fundraising activities because I dislike the implied moral pressure it puts on people so please genuinely don’t feel obligated but thanks just for reading this far.

‘Visual.ly Create’ – Infographic design automation tool

Back in July of last year I wrote about the launch of visual.ly, the gallery/community platform for showcasing data visualisation and infographic work. At the time the most intriguing footnote to this launch was the promised release of an automated, infographic creation tool which was scheduled for late 2011. There’s been a bit of a delay but today sees the launch of Visual.ly Create.

The people behind Visual.ly have tapped into their collective years of experience in developing infographic designs and attempted to integrate the best practices of data visualisation design into a step-by-step process which unleashes the visual potential of your desired data feed:

…we’ve built data feeds into a number of infographic designs, created for you by our team of expert designers. Making an infographic, based on your own data, couldn’t be easier. Simply connect and click to produce a professional-looking infographic. If you don’t like the first design you try, click though the themes until you find one that you do like.

Here’s an example of one of their launch designs to demonstrate the potential outputs of this automatic creation process. I’ve not had chance to play with the tool yet so can’t yet provide any narrative or judgments about its value or effectiveness. There is still a huge appetite for infographics across great swathes of the online population so I’m sure it will prove to be a popular development amongst that demographic. Moreover, it will be interesting to see how the tool’s capabilities evolve over time.

…this is just the beginning. Visual.ly Create will grow over time to include additional data feeds, designs, stories, and themes in the areas of sports, politics, economics, food, and more. We’ll even be opening it up to the community, so that you can create your own designs and themes. That’s when things get interesting.

Visualizing.org Sprint: An experiment in collaborative visualisation

If there is one thing dominating the lips, or at least typing fingers, of data visualisation followers this week it is contests. I’ve already briefly mentioned in my last post the Data Stories podcast discussion about contests and awards, and this evening Twitter timelines are collectively shaking their fists in reaction to the latest Information is Beautiful Awards. Hot on the heels of this, this evening, details have been announced about Visualizing.org’s fascinating experimental project called the ‘Sprint‘.

The Sprint is an experiment in collaborative data visualisation whereby the community work together to visualise a set of data. Starting from an initial concept design, anyone is able to take the development forward by modifying and enhancing the code in all sorts of different directions, whether large or small (eg. colour scheme, encoding choice etc.). Eventually the design will evolve into a finished collaborative visualisation. As well as contributing to design changes the community can also participate through voting, evaluating and discussing what changes have worked or otherwise.

The first project involves a dataset from Global Water Experiment involving over 75,000 students in 80 countries collecting and recording water quality samples from their neighbourhoods. The challenge is for the community to arrive at a finished solution by March 22 which coincides with World Water Day. Every person participating will be credited on the final piece and a random person will be selected from all who contributed to win a free pass to this year’s sold out Eyeo Festival.

I will be really interested to see how this develops because it sounds like a great, innovative way forward for the field. How will design changes be received? Will it be possible to achieve consensus? Can the community work collaboratively like this? We’ll have to watch and find out…