Last month, the inaugural Encode conference took place in London. The conference focused on the pillars of design, education, and journalism within data visualisation. A preliminary day of hands-on workshops was followed by two full days of presentations and panel discussions. Set in the Oval Space between London’s up-and-coming areas of Shoreditch and Hackney, under the rare London September backdrop of intense, blue, cloudless sky, it was the new dataviz event on the block that everyone wanted to be part of. But how did it shape up?
Several members of the Data Visualization Society were there in attendance — condensing all of their thoughts and takeouts from a jam-packed conference was not easy, but here are just some of their thoughts.
James is an analytics consultant for Biztory in London, a co-leader of the #sportsvizsundday initiative and also produces great sports visualisations at his Sportschord website. James condensed his takeaways into four main areas:
1. Drawing with data
Inspired by the pre-conference workshop from Federica Cocco and John Burn-Murdoch, James commented that hand-drawn visualisations allow the focus to be on the data’s story, rather than the precision of the numbers. Both presenters demonstrated this point by drawing visualisations in front of the audience and we were able to watch the story unfold as the visualisation took shape. Pen and paper was also the inspiration behind Valentina d’Efilippo’s workshops, showing much more about the culture and geographic knowledge of participants than otherwise possible, and of course the process of inspirational visualisations from Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec. All in all, James felt that returning to pen and paper was a great resource not just for prototyping, but for finished visualisation projects.
Sonification was showcased in a number of presentations (the New York Times, Financial Times, and Dataveyes, to name a few) and referenced in Andy Kirk’s State of the Union 2019 presentation. We saw examples where sonification elements reflected the data points to powerful effect, and we saw more abstract elements of sound adding to data art installations, an important distinction. But the relatively new element of data sonification was one left ringing in James’s ears after the conference!
3. Passion projects
So many talks referenced real passion projects for the designers and studios behind them. It was impossible not to be inspired by such projects but important to understand the amount of work and hard graft on non–passion projects that each of the speakers had put in to get to that point. James referred to Malcom Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to mastery” rule and wondered if that would also apply in the field of data visualisation. But, let’s celebrate some of these amazing passion projects! Below is the Millennium Falcon, part of David Sheldon-Hicks’s presentation about his work in the film and video game industry.
4. Collaboration and diversity
Diversity in the field of data visualisation was highlighted by Marie Segger’s inspirational talk — Marie not only highlighted the challenges posed to minority and underrepresented groups in the industry but provided her own calls to action. Diversity of projects, roles, and tools was also a highlight, though in the case of tools, this was noticeable only in its absence. Because tools weren’t discussed at length, the implication was wider, that the only constraints are in creativity, not tool use, with a call out especially to the work of Shadi El Hajj of Refraction Labs. (Data Visualization Society welcomes users of all viz tools and loves to be tool agnostic for that very reason!) Finally, there were many stellar examples of collaboration, including Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick, who showcased many of the projects where they have worked together, prompting James to call out for future collaboration work!
Tom is a senior data analyst with sports data firm Perform in London who also does bits with sports data providers Opta, and he summarised his recap with three takeaway thoughts of his own from the conference:
Like James, Tom featured the importance of hand-drawn sketching first of all, referring to it as the most powerful tool we all have access to. Tom’s take on this is that whatever your tool of choice, we all have access to the ability to sketch (it doesn’t matter how badly). If “writing is thinking” then “design is decision-making,” and we should be encouraged to sketch out our prototypes in the future
2. Focus on the moments that matter
This was a specific takeaway from Gert Franke, co-founder of Clever Franke. The moments that matter are the moments that matter to the people who are using your tools. First you must identify those people and their needs, and then consider the “moments that matter” to them. A great individual takeaway is, as Tom says (relevant to his field of expertise in football analysis): “What good is a product if, in a key a part of the decision-making process, it’s not providing the right information to coaches, analysts and directors of football?”
3. Dataviz is getting more “informal”
Tom considered this in his final takeaway, as well as the rise of sonification and “participation” — again citing Andy Kirk’s references. The move away from traditional bars and lines is bringing about a wealth of sound and physical-based visualisations. In addition, chart titles are getting much more informal. This can only help engage with users and help them understand what they are looking at, since we as users don’t want to look at “dry graphics with dull titles.” Tom’s takeaway was that the blend of data visualization and information design is a powerful one for telling memorable stories and he was inspired to leverage these trends to create more engaging content that we currently consume.
My own background is as a Tableau Consultant at Groupon, a former Tableau Zen Master, a current Director of the Data Visualization Society, and a dataviz blogger; I made the trip down from Derbyshire in the UK. I went a lot more granular with my takeaways — coming up with 20 in all. You can check out the full list in the blog referenced below, but here are a few which differ from those mentioned so far:
1. Keep a healthy backlog of ideas
Inspired by Caitlin Ralph from the Pudding, it’s important to record ideas that you have into a personal “backlog,” however unusual they may seem at the time. We all face a shortage of ideas from time to time, and the ability to refer to a few ideas you had on a train journey 18 months ago might just be the creative spark needed to come up with a whole new project.
2. Present each other’s work
There were tips and tricks shared, particularly at the Education themed panel discussion, around running workshops for newcomers and students of data visualisation. Many great tips came from Valentina d’Efilippo, not least her suggestion of participants sketching their visualisations on A4 paper, and then positioning them within the larger A3 size, therefore allowing room for instructions and explanation. The favourite suggestion was that of presenting each other’s work — a simple suggestion (in theory) which focuses the designer on making sure that their work is understandable to the layman picking it up for the first time, and focuses the user on taking the time to understand the visualisation in front of them. Plus, any presentation experience is good experience. A win-win tip.
3. “Data is both a structure and a jumping-off point”
This quote from Miriam Quick summarised the idea that you don’t just need to visualise and present your data in a formulaic way. You can structure, report and aggregate your data to the most functional or engaging visualisations, but that doesn’t have to be all. Miriam’s projects would often then take that data only as a starting point as we consider how then to represent it. Specifically, Miriam showcased her Sleep Songs project — a choral piece which used data from sleep patterns as its starting point. This has opened up the idea of further such “secondary” visualisation projects.
4. “Be like the worst tabloid at the front and the Academy of Science in the back”
A Hans Rosling quote which sums up a number of Neil’s sub-points around how to gain traction and visibility to your visualisations while ensuring their accuracy and validity. This underlies the difficulty faced by many, particularly women and those under-represented in the field. Also featured was the pre-conference talk from Rachel Ara and Julie Freeman (recorded here) — as talented data artists they have had to work so hard not just to promote their work but to be involved in almost every step of the process while holding down regular IT jobs because financial support is just not available. We all need to understand how to get the right balance between publicity/engagement and rigorous visualisations, but we also need to ensure that the opportunity to do so is equally open to all.
Marian joined us from near Antwerp in Belgium where she is an operations and intelligence leader at her current role with SUEZ Water as well as a co-leader of the Belgium Tableau User Group. She shared her thoughts with us after the event too — again with three great takeaways:
1. Don’t think you have to be better than anyone else
2. Happiness promotes curiosity and an explorative mindset so make sure you have plenty
3. Work on projects you are passionate about, they are your ambassadors
In Marian’s words: “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got my tickets for encode. Considering I see myself as a ‘novice’ practitioner still and come from a very different background then most attendees (yes — I let my imposter syndrome get the better of me); I had this idea I would spend two days being inspired and leave with some new ideas but I left with so much more than that. For me encode was/is all about the people.
“I had so many great conversations with folks that were really open about sharing their knowledge and experiences, and got to meet a few people I have been admiring from afar and would never have connected with outside of the conference; so I’m very grateful for that. Being around that much creativity has been incredibly exhilarating and I couldn’t possible summarize all the great content in a single paragraph.”
Mollie joined us all the way from San Francisco where she is a senior data analyst with Netflix. She was the co-organiser of the recent visfest unconf in Chicago and is Data Visualization Society’s Events Director (formerly Knowledge Director). She doesn’t have a blog write-up but has the most thorough review of all under the #encode19 twitter hashtag — see photos and a summary of every talk and every major project included within. Here are just a few which cover elements not mentioned in this round-up yet:
1. The emotionally powerful and philanthropic work of Beyond Words Studio
2. The Power of collaboration to enable ideation and brainstorming ideas, focusing on quantity over quality (from Stefanie Posavec and Miriam Quick) — expressed in inimitable fashion!
3. The blurring of lines between reality and abstract result in surreal and captivating works of data-inspired art, as demonstrated by Quayola
4. The evolution of projects from Clever Franke studios (from Gert Franke’s talk) resulting in an upcoming Cirque du Data project featuring smartphone orchestras and data magicians, no less:
5. And returning to data journalism, Krystina Shveda spoke about the connection between data literacy in journalism and public trust, pointing to how too often journalism amounts to repeating someone else’s claims rather than digging into the data oneself to check.
The recordings for all talks and sessions are due to be out shortly, and we’ll be sure to post details. Want to see more?