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What’s a “Handmade Data Object” Anyway?

At the Starschema data visualization team, we pride ourselves on keeping up and engaging with the global dataviz community, including industry trends and publications. Sometimes, that inspires us to throw our tried-and-true, state-of-the-art tools out the window and try our hand at unconventional approaches to our craft. This post tells the story of our most recent collaborative experimentation with what we’ve seen referred to as “analog data art” or “handmade data objects” — read on to find out how we ended up hunched over old watch parts to create this physical data visualization:

Closeup of different old metal watch parts (gears, crowns and screws) glued onto a sheet of paper. The parts are organized into a circle around an antique-looking, copper-colored watch face.

The Challenge

The first edition of the Data Visualization Society’s Nightingale magazine arrived at our mini library on a rainy day and one of the things that left us fascinated immediately upon our very first flip through of the magazine was the Dear Nightingale challenge.

Two shelves, a mix of data visualization-related books and alcoholic beverages on both. An issue of Nightingale magazine displayed prominently on the lower shelf.

Born out of Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec’s delightful Dear Data project, the challenge calls for vizzes focused on personal details, created in physical form — and no drawing allowed. Our team knew that this could inspire us to approach a viz idea from a wildly different perspective than usual. We knew we wanted to take part in the challenge — but we didn’t have The Idea yet.

Luckily, this was right before the team participated in a workshop designed to help us engage with our creativity in new ways. One of the core ideas discussed at the workshop was that creativity really is about constraints — and once we connected that idea to the fact that we had access to an almost unlimited amount of watch parts, we realized we had a visual hook for a project. After some consideration, the team settled on visualizing daily routines.

Old, metal watch parts roughly organized into small heaps by type. There are crowns, balance wheels, hands, movements, bracelets, pins, glass covers, circular springs in bunches, one type of part mixing with the next while still forming distinct clusters.

Getting Down to Design

We divided our weekdays into five categories: sleep, commute, paid work, unpaid work (anything from household chores to learning), and fun. It was fascinating to see in a visual format how our days differ from each other’s and how they’re similar. For example, we arrive at and leave the office at very different hours but always make sure to get lunch and coffee together — which is categorized as fun, obviously.

We wanted to make sure the design we had in mind was bulletproof before moving on to the physical implementation. We measured all the parts we wanted to use and created an interactive digital prototype that proved super useful. The prototype allowed us to experiment with visual elements, spacing, banding, how many parts can we reasonably fit on a sheet of A4 paper, etc. Now, we just had to put watch parts to paper.

Wide shot of the three authors working on the piece around a table in an office setting. All of them are slightly hunched, focused on the tiny parts they are gluing together and onto the paper. The other chairs and workstations in the office space are empty.

Our Lives in Viz

So, without further ado, here’s what a workday looks like for the three of us that worked on this handmade data object:

Overhead shot showing two watch faces situated to the left and right of the middle of a sheet of paper. Around both faces run three circles of five types of watch parts corresponding to different activities. Handwritten annotations help to discern the meaning of each part, highlighting differences between the authors’ days, like how “unpaid work” for Tomi means getting up at night for his children, while for Julcsi it’s studying Japanese and for Pisti it’s cooking.

This is an unusual viz — for a variety of reasons — so here’s a quick guide to reading it: the two dials represent twelve hours of the day (a.m. and p.m.) with each circle around the dials showing the daily routine of one person in twenty-minute intervals.

The Experience

Working on this project gave us a renewed appreciation for physical media. We thoroughly enjoyed the tangible collaboration of gluing the watch parts onto the paper, one-by-one, together, our monotone efforts contributing to a single, shared product. This experience is not something one can easily get from working on a computer, behind a screen — but we definitely expect its benefits to translate to projects carried out under our traditional work circumstances as well.

About the Authors:

István Korompai is a data visualization expert at Starschema. He builds dashboards for Fortune 500 clients and trains their employees to do the same. Connect with István on Twitter: @_kpisti.

Júlia Borsi is a data visualization expert at Starschema. She is passionate about building effective and visually pleasing dashboards for her clients, staying up-to-date with anything dataviz-related, and snowboarding. Follow Júlia on Twitter: @juliaborsi.

Tamás Varga is a data visualization expert and data storyteller at Starschema, with years of experience building practical dashboards with sharp designs for global enterprises and major nonprofit organizations. In addition to his professional interest in data visualization, he’s also an active member of Tableau’s international dataviz community as a Tableau Public Ambassador. Follow Tamás on Twitter: @Imperativusz.

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