So You Want to Pick a Dataviz Platform

Ok Phil, your first ever column got 2,000 clicks in two days. Now. You need to keep that momentum going, boy! Failure to make a good article here means you’ll lose all the goodwill you got on your first one. And it’s even worse for you since, ya know, your first article was literally about embracing failure. So … hey, no pressure.

Now. Let’s open with something solid. How about …

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

WOW! That was teeeeeerrible. Offensive to animal rights people and a dumb metaphor in the first sentence. Amazing. You have a gift. Try again, and make sure to delete this before the editor sees it.Folks pretty desperately want to figure out data visualization. Well, good news! The industry wants to help. Articles, classes, and videos spend untold minutes, nay, perhaps even hours telling you how to tackle the mountain of libraries and apps that exist now to make a chart.Even so, they may fail to some degree. There’s a mountain of articles, sure, alongside a similar mountain of apps and techniques to use them. But does this pseudo-helpful mountain address one key question that newcomers ask me? Does the mountain peak look down from its lofty perch and hear:“Wait, which one of these things do I learn?”It’s a good question, but strong opinions and hot takes cloud the answers you get. You, consultant or CIO or data officer trying to make a good recommendation on what software to buy, need something that gets to the heart of the real question you have.


“Which do I learn?”


“Which is right for me? Or my organization or team?”

If you’re curious how we get to that second question, read up on something called the Heilmeier Catechism. I use it a lot whenever I go through the design thinking process. In the industry, we call that second question a business question — the actual problem underlying the issue we think we have.I don’t want to learn something that I don’t like or understand, you say. And I really don’t want to learn something that might cost more money or bring extra risk. Don’t give me some opinionated drivel or some boring statistics, you continue. I can get that anywhere. Show me what works best for me. Use simple language and make it something I can follow along.

I’m gonna do this for you.

But not with a one-paragraph answer. That’s for chumps, and your needs and questions are way larger than that.

This is a series, and it’ll be live fire. I’ll show you that you can use the same data to make the same chart, three different ways, and I’ll document how.When I say “three different ways,” I really mean it. I’ll talk about the different ways you can use Excel to get through the chart-making process. Then, I’ll demonstrate how to use code like a programmer might with Python (plus some other friends). Finally, I’ll show you how a popular data visualization application named Tableau can do it. Same data, same chart, three completely different ways to achieve it.At the end, you get to compare how I made each chart. You can decide on your own which is right for you, but I’ll give you some pointers. I’ll even crack open draw.io and make a flowchart. You can copy & paste it into a PowerPoint deck for your next staff meeting where you’ll “forget” to cite me. Hey, buddy. It’s all for you.Draw The Rest Of The ChartImposter Syndrome and Levelling Up in Data Visualizationmedium.com

After all this is done, you may have an epiphany. You may realize that you now know a bunch of ways to make a chart. You may also realize that you don’t want to lock yourself into just one path. If that happens, then I have good news: You’ve learned the real lesson here.

I primarily do consulting for the US federal government. Because of that, I can’t even guess how many different ways I’ve made charts over the years. Oh, this client likes Excel. That client has coders who love R but they didn’t obtain the necessary software approvals to get it for me, even though the contract says all work must be done on a client computer. This other client wants everything on a SharePoint site and fully interactive with their List. This other client paid for a Tableau Server, but they require that I use a version of Desktop that includes the number 8, but isn’t 2018.

That’s life. Deal with it, consultant.Yes, if it wasn’t clear: All of that has happened (or is happening right now) to me, because that’s what your tax dollars look like when they’re hard at work. Pick “one” dataviz platform. Heh.

Whatever. I love my country, so I support it by making charts. Wow, that’s depressing.

Oh, says a critic. But that means a lot of people will have all these tools and will want to use them, and the people who don’t know any of this will have to rely on them. To which I say: yes. Your point?

We’re doing Microsoft Excel first, and guess what? It’s the longest one! It takes the most time! Just watch how I do it!Part One- Excel

Part Two- Python (and friends)

Part Three- Tableau

Coming Soon- Wrap-up

Philip Hawkins hasn’t retaken the AWS exam yet. He has an outline for a sci-fi novel and a few rough chapters written. He strongly believes that Medium needs a dark theme. Philip recently learned how to make a heatmap in Bokeh despite there being no documentation for it aside from one example.