Miriam Quick and Stefanie Posavec speaking at Encode 2019, London.

What is the Future of Dataviz Festivals?

As the Encode team looks back at their first ever festival back in 2019, they contemplate the physical and digital futures of data design festivals

Encode team
Sep 11, 2020 · 5 min read

Usually, around this time of the year, we’ve all got events in the fall to look forward to whether it’s conferences, festivals, or other forms of gatherings to network, learn and share ideas. Then there’s 2020: a very different year for conferences (and a whole lot of other things) that is changing the shape of public events in almost every way.

Over the last few months, our team at Encode attended several design conferences, taught undergraduate design students, and had countless meetings, all without leaving home. Since March, our homes have become the world we live in, for better or worse. Will it be the world of tomorrow too?

As a newborn data design festival, we’ve been thinking quite a lot about what the future holds. Here are our thoughts on what the ‘new normal’ might be for Encode from a recent Zoom fireside chat.

Cedric Kiefer from Onformative speaking at Encode 2019, London.

Conferences have always been a place for networking, inspiration, new opportunities, and, of course, the odd late-night drinking session. Design festivals are no exception to that.

There’s a lot to be said about the physicality of these events. From exciting introductions among early-hour attendees looking to make friends to the thrilling experience of sitting in the front row to see those who inspire you to give a goosebump-inducing talk that will send you home overflowing with ideas.

Can we still achieve this with an event that has all the ingredients of a great festival — minus the physical space?

Perhaps the future of these festivals is to see the current climate as an opportunity to enhance the personal immersive experience. Imagine a multi-track event where the schedule of each day is an experience that you delve into that is immersive, personalised, and customised to your choices and interests.

As a result, you’d have a series of experiences that still combine insights, personal interests, and showcase work but on a more intimate level. Something that has come out of this quarantine period is an interesting concept called Quarantine Book Club, created by Mule Design in San Francisco. It’s a space where you get a chance to meet the author behind one of your favourite books and have a Q&A with them.

This sparked the idea of ‘Encode Originals’. Could we curate content into a series of focused documentaries and short films driven by a topic? Perhaps moving away from the two/three-day event into months of smaller engagements or releases?

Those hyped-up moments before the talks kick in… (Encode 2019, at Oval Space, London).

Encode 2019 was an experience which we curated by carefully selecting those involved and the topics that were discussed, but what does content curation mean in a world of the digital festival? Fast consumption and short attention spans may require curators to rethink the balance of content. Encouraging the data design community to not only have a say in what’s being discussed but to shape what goes into it. For example, the concept of a festival in this new world could be that it runs simultaneously in different cities where there is a framework that these cities work within but it’s localised to each community.

The choice of location for an event may still be relevant if you think about it from the hub/community that each represents. For example, NYC has a really strong data journalism community, London is more focused on data science and Milan is bustling with dataviz studios and practitioners, each with a unique style. You, the attendee (aka the ‘Encoder’) could plug into all three cities when you want to, allowing you to localize by city as well as topic while remaining connected to the global festival.

Moments from a panel debate on data literacy at Encode 2019, London.

Admittedly, we don’t know and maybe the answer is no. Maybe this new scenario may shift the focus of what’s really worth the effort (of traveling, staying at hotels, and suspending your routines). For many, this could mean investing only in workshops or other activities that provide direct benefits that can’t be done as well online. The way of doing business is changing rapidly, so there’s no reason to doubt this could be applied to festivals too.

It’s something that we — as practitioners — already have to get used to with our own projects. The norm was for a kick-off meeting to be in the room with your clients and stakeholders where most of it was face-to-face. Whereas now we are conducting workshops in real-time and online. Software is already moving fast to support this transition. Web apps like Mural or Miro are helping businesses and teams to do this seamlessly.

A sunny afternoon break time in between talks at Encode 2019, London.

Serendipity and six degrees of separation.

From the events that we’ve attended in the digital realm so far, something we missed — which is at the heart of Encode — is to encourage new friendships, relationships, and opportunities to collaborate with people you’ve never done so with before.

That’s not to say there are no lessons to be learned from this new way of sharing knowledge. Take a look at the concept behind Splice Beta: a series of multiple live one-hour sessions across 20+ days in a single month, so they got you covered almost every day of the month. Sounds like a lot? It’s not actually (it’s basically like a packed three-day schedule, spread over a month); on the other hand, it offers a flexible calendar, and you can pick what you want, without fear of missing out.

Yet, in the end we keep going back to serendipity and that moment where you are connected with like-minded folks who until that point weren’t on your radar. How do you create that environment in the digital space? Will this ever replace the physical experience? Being honest here, we want to stay true to our main aim and the reason we founded Encode: to connect talented, like-minded practitioners and share experiences, spark ideas and encourage collaboration. We will still strive for this, whatever shape Encode takes next.

Whilst we don’t have all the answers it’s been interesting to explore and discuss what the future of festivals may be. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Hem and Piero.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society