Data visualization favorites from 2017
Over the past couple of years or so I’ve been trying to cultivate the practice of reflecting more closely on projects I like and trying to think through why they ‘work’ or what attracts me to them. It can be difficult at times to stop scrolling through all the feeds and slow down to digest a work more deeply, but its a great way to learn and develop a critical eye that can help you in your own work.
It’s also the end of the year and listicles are in the air, so I figured I’d try my hand at one. So here is an in-no-way-comprehensive list of twelvish-or-so data vis related things I enjoyed in 2017. They are ordered roughly chronologically based on when I came across them.
One Angry Bird
Ruffled feathers may be an apt (but mild) metaphor for the tone and feel of political discourse in the U.S over this past year. This piece by Periscopic constructs “feathers” from the emotional tone of political speech from recent US presidential addresses. The underlying analytical method is complex (and likely imperfect) but is presented clearly and the final form of the piece is beautiful.
The Google Quick, Draw! dataset was one of the most fun dataset releases of the year. Forma Fluens by Mauro Martino, Henrik Strobelt and Owen Cornec provides some nifty exploratory tools as well an some in depth analysis of some of the sketchy patterns exhibited across different parts of the world.
If this catches your eye, also take a look at this article by Thu-Huong Ha and Nikhil Sonnad from Quartz , this analysis by Jim Vallandingham and even I had a quick go at it.
For April fools day, Reddit launched a massively multi user collaborative drawing canvas simply called “Place”. With over 1 million distinct users making a mark, many visualizations were made to show us the action in all its emergent glory. A few highlights I came across include this 3d visualization by youtube user Max Grrr, this heat-map of activity by reddit user JorgeGT, and this 2d time-lapse of the whole thing by youtube user Gurkengewuerz.
Like the Quick, Draw! visualizations, these visualization give us a peek into collective creative behavior mediated by the internet and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them.
Choosing just one essay from the Pudding is like choosing your favorite Roots album (maybe you just don’t). The folks at The Pudding have been on a tear this year, producing really excellent visual stories with a sharp sense of design. With a wide range of topics and technical approaches stemming from their approach to the work and collaborations with contributors, I’ll continue looking forward to what they produce in the year to come.
The time and effort that goes into the pieces really shows; some I come to first as a reader and fan of the subject material, others interest me more from a technical and design perspective, but there is generally something delightful in each one.
A few highlights for me from this year include an essay connecting information theory to repetition in song, a sequel to the rapper vocab piece, a slang refresher course, a look at gender representation in comic books and one on gender tropes in screen direction.
Making of The Color Palettes of the New Yorker
I have a soft spot in my heart for visualizations of cultural collections and Nicholas Rougeux’ Color Palettes of the New Yorker is a fantastic project. But I particularly enjoyed his in depth write-up of the work. There are so many different explorations that provide a rich tapestry of approaches to visualizing this dataset! Its a really great exercise to look through them and think about which ones you like best yourself.
Emoji States of America
Emoji + Chernoff Faces! So this is the actually the first time I’ve seen a Chernoff face visualization that I’ve liked. The details in these emoji faces are fantastic and really provide a great range of emotion to depict the data (look at the bags under those eyes). It really drew me in and kept me exploring. Plus its adorable!
Pulling A Polygon Out of a Hat
OpenVis Conf celebrated its 5th run* and Noah Veltman had us all in stitches while presenting his incredibly deep dive into shape morphing. It was a wonderfully nerdy and entertaining talk that took us through his journey of making better shape transitions. Thankfully for us he released a library to help with this sort of thing.
*Next year’s OVC is gonna be in Paris 🇫🇷🧀🍷😱! Submit a talk / get your tickets vite vite!
Annotation is an incredibly important part of visualization, especially narrative visualization. Susie Lu has made a wonderful library for adding annotations to d3 based visualizations. It has beautiful defaults and great documentation, I used it myself in a project this year and really enjoyed it.
The Datasaurus Dozen
Expanding on Alberto Cairo’s datasaurus from 2016, Justin Matejka and George Fitzmaurice’s datasaurus dozen provide a fresh reminder of one of the advantages of visualizing data in addition to computing summary statistics. The data in each of these plots have the same mean, median, standard deviation and Pearson’s correlation.
A novel and elegant visualization technique that blends ideas from bar charts and tree-maps. Xan provides a lot of detail, examples and alternatives in his write up. It’s also really refreshing to see innovation in general purpose charts geared towards analysis.
The Library of Missing Datasets
This is a project from 2015, but I only heard about it when listening to Mimi’s talk at Eyeo Festival this year (so its new to me). Here’s the link to the talk (which covers some other projects as well). I include it for the perspective it provides on data collection and what that means for our results and interpretation, it also provides a view into where data, algorithms and visualization meet (and fail to meet) with culture and personal experience. I highly recommend this talk.
If this sounds interesting I’d also recommend reading Boris’ Mueller’s essay on Data Visualization as Cultural Images and Giorgia Lupi’s essay on Data Humanism which I also found thought provoking this year.
One theme in discussion this year was the state of data visualization in industry (focusing particularly on industries outside of journalism). One take-away that rings true for me is that we don’t get to see as much of data visualization made for industry or industrial use because so much of it is confidential to internal audiences.
Created for the German Rail system, Peak Spotting is a great example is a wonderful example of a custom visual analytics program built-to-order to solve problems in a specific domain. I hope it becomes a useful case study of not only what can be done, but also what it takes to get it done (time, scale of investment and process) and maybe even the outcomes of projects like this for key stakeholders. I also think the government/public infrastructure space could provide a good avenue for work like this to be shown more publicly. I’m crossing my fingers for a data stories episode about this one!
You couldn’t throw a rock in 2017 and not have it be recognized as a such by some neural network somewhere out there. Machine Learning and AI have been a huge part of the zeitgeist this year and distill.pub is one of my favorite publications covering the topic. I am also excited by the approach to acadamic/research communication distill is spearheading.
This article on feature visualization by Chris Olah, Alexander Mordvintsev, & Ludwig Schubert was particularly interesting to me after some of the experiments I did this year using deep neural networks to look at film images. It provides an fairly accessible look into how a particular neural network builds up internal representations and some methods to examine what is going on inside of one.
Honorable Mention — Data Stories
Data Stories has been around much longer than 2017 and I’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, but I really really enjoyed it this year and highly recommend it!
Honorable Mention — Data Sketches
Honorable Mention — Visual Trumpery: How to fight against fake data and visualizations from the left and from the right
Not as partisan as it may sound: Alberto Cairo is doing a lecture series that touches on visual literacy, ethics in visual communication . I saw it when he came to Boston and really enjoyed it. It’s also geared towards an audience outside of data-vis practice which I think is fantastic. It provides some tools and heuristics to becoming a more graphically savvy consumer of information. He also provides a ton of resources in a dropbox folder for a deeper dive.
That’s it for now! Happy New Year!