Today, February 20th, the Data Visualization Society (DVS) turns four years old. It’s a day I always remember as a founding board member, and stays on my calendar as the Executive Director. Our DVS birthday happens to align with that of my oldest son, who also turns four this month. Not unlike his growth from infancy to little kid, DVS has made big developmental leaps over the last four years.
I was in the midst of maternity leave when I said yes to hopping on leadership calls with the DVS co-founders Elijah Meeks, Amy Cesal, and Mollie Petit about how to support the explosive growth they saw in those early months. We hit 3,500 members in a single month, and 17,000 in our first year!
The COVID-19 pandemic surfaced unexpected challenges for us as a new association. I remember we were about to launch our affiliated groups and start building out geographic chapters in March 2020—right when in-person events around the world went on pause. We, too, had to pause that launch. And we wondered, how could a professional association with a mission to connect people and build community thrive in this new environment?
But the constraints and challenges of the pandemic, it turned out, both accelerated and shaped our growth as an organization. In 2020, data visualization was thrown into the spotlight as a primary way to communicate information about the spread of COVID-19. Online news outlets pinned maps and trackers to the top of their sites, and newspapers like the New York Times dedicated entire front pages to visualizing grim milestones like the lives lost. (You can see those examples and many others in the Unimaginable Deaths supplement that shipped with Nightingale print issue #2. It is available as a digital download for our dues-paying members).
What’s more, DVS benefited from the world’s virtual shift. Our first Outlier Conference included nearly 1,000 attendees from 60 countries around the world, which wouldn’t have been possible at an in-person event. You can still replay the mainstage talks, all archived on a YouTube playlist!
One of the hidden benefits of growing during the pandemic was the lighter financial burden of hosting events virtually rather than in venues, and the generosity shown by many tech firms. Companies extended free software licenses (like our Pro Slack that we had for over two years!) to nonprofit organizations, and we had a great response to our ask for sponsors for the first Outlier. These things kept our costs manageable despite our rapid growth.
Perhaps most critically, the isolated state of the world amplified our need for connection, and DVS became a landing spot for data visualization enthusiasts across professions and industries. Today, we have over 20,000 members from every corner of the planet. That number is ticking up daily. So it’s a great time to make some birthday wishes (and commitments), and assess how DVS can bring members closer together and provide them with the best tools and support to fulfill our mission.
Staying true to our values as we grow
DVS is uniquely positioned to convene different groups of people and be an unbiased home for big community programs. This is why we have been able to back initiatives like the Information is Beautiful Awards, and build Nightingale, a dedicated data visualization journal.
These investments, among others, have stemmed from DVS’s three core values:
- Nurturing the data visualization community
- Celebrating amazing data visualization work happening around the world
- Advancing the data visualization industry
These three pillars all support our mission to create a home for professionals at all ages and stages of their data visualization career, from students to experienced practitioners. The data visualization community, which has always been generous, adheres to these values. I see it on social media, when people cheer each other’s posts and answer each other’s questions. And I’ve always been delighted by the ways the expert practitioners in our field jump in to welcome, mentor, and help fellow DVS members on Slack or during our events.
It’s abundantly clear that we’ve got a great foundation to build from. We’re demystifying career paths in data visualization, with the goal to make it easier to see how to pursue a job in this field. Our Education team has spent over a year analyzing survey data blended with individual career portrait interviews to create a deep dive into the work of visualizers including analysts, developers, and designers. Our annual State of the Industry Survey captures big themes and trends in our field—including information on pay with an eye towards salary transparency—and we make the cleaned, aggregate data available to the public each year as part of one of our data viz challenges to put your design skills to work.
But as we continue to both sustain the amazing programming and resources we’ve built over the last four years, and expand to meet the needs of a growing global community of practitioners and enthusiasts, we need your support.
Over the last four years, DVS has relied on volunteers who have donated the equivalent of $400,000 in work hours annually to get the organization to where it is today. Going forward, DVS plans to hire more paid contractors to keep the ship running. Hopefully, these talented individuals will be full time staff.
We also need resources to invest in our events both big and small, our mentorship program, our growing list of interest groups and chapters, developing informative content through white papers and other professional resources, compensating our contributors, and covering the operational expenses of running a fast-growing professional association. Those overhead costs include everything from our accounting and bookkeeping (making sure our contributors get paid on time), to software as a service fees for platforms that help us keep our digital ships running and compliant with regulations like GDPR, to banking and registration fees to continue to exist as a US-based company.
This year, we’re doubling down on financial transparency so you can see what those expenses look like and where your membership dues and other contributions go—watch for more updates from our Operations Director, Angel Velarde, on that front.
One of our goals in the early months of DVS’s founding was to create an organization with the momentum and infrastructure to long outlive any of the early founders and board members.
We established ourselves as a 501c3 nonprofit organization, which has come with a host of benefits for us (discounted—but not free—software, as a big one!) and our contributors, who may be eligible for tax deductions for their contributions. Our nonprofit structure ensures that any revenue not spent within a given year is reinvested in the mission of the organization, not lining anyone’s pockets.
In four years, we’ve welcomed 25 different board members, and seen founders transition from actively leading the organization’s day-to-day activities to being trusted friends and advisors. Managing through those kinds of transitions may seem like obvious milestones. But in the nonprofit world they’re a big sign of organizational maturity.
As we look forward, we know we’ve got the passion to nurture the data visualization community and create space for innovation while celebrating the humblest of bar charts. With data literacy and data storytelling top of mind for leaders across industries, we know data visualization has a huge potential to continue to shape how people engage with information. We are ready to ensure that DVS has not just another four, but another 40 (or more!) years to come. And we hope you’ll be right there with us to grow and celebrate.
Amanda Makulec is the Senior Data Visualization Lead at Excella and volunteers as the Executive Director for the Data Visualization Society. She holds a Masters of Public Health from the Boston University School of Public Health, and worked with data in global health programs for eight years before joining Excella, where she leads teams and develops user-centered data visualization products for federal, non-profit, and private sector clients. Find her on Twitter at @abmakulec.