Falling Out of Love with Data (a first draft)

  This is a (yet to be edited, work in progress) story about my personal journey over the past 3 years and how I've shifted my perspective on the purpose and practice of data visualization. 

This is a (yet to be edited, work in progress) story about my personal journey over the past 3 years and how I've shifted my perspective on the purpose and practice of data visualization. 

The Starting Point

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I'll start the story in 2014: several years and countless projects into my career as a designer. The common thread throughout my early years of work is that I was the only creative person on an otherwise highly technical or analytical group. I didn't intentionally seek this kind of dynamic, it's just how things worked out... probably a function of living in a city like DC. While I may have missed out on the more "glamorous" design work, I began to understand how businesses and federal agencies operate-- from the finances and back office functions to the personal and political dynamics among organizational leaders. I learned how to balance the creative process with the realities of slow moving organizations, and gradually developed a deep appreciation for the role that data and metrics play in every aspect of business. 

This appreciation of data and metrics turned into a fascination, and then a love. I studied Tufte, then Cairo, Yao, Rosling, and many others. I crafted a training program to educate my colleagues on the best practices, and went to as many local meetups and conferences as I could get corporate sponsorship to attend. At the same time I was falling in love with data, I also rekindled my love for drawing. It came in handy when brainstorming different chart types and livening up client conversations. I dipped my toe into the world of Graphic Facilitation, and started to try and blend these two worlds together.

The combination of drawing + data became a small niche for me within my company. I got to travel all around the US and to several international locations conducting "visioning sessions" where I would whiteboard an intense brainstorming process with clients, centered around their analytics and data visualization needs. At the same time, I was getting external recognition in the form of followers and retweets for sketchnotes and other doodles that I was sharing on twitter. 

The summer of 2015 I started to feel like I was at the top of my game, with a weird little niche in a growing field that was beginning to embrace the value of storytelling and the creative process. So after a few lucky breaks I left my job to start my own business and offer these services independently. 

The Middle Part

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Thanks to the lucky breaks and the various relationships I had forged, I didn't have much trouble settling into the life of a freelancer. I steadily built my client base and online presence over the course of the first year, and fully hit my stride in the fall of 2016. In September 2016 I was juggling an animation project for a major DC museum, a data visualization project for a women's political expert, and a series of workshops for an NGO at the same time. And in the middle of my very first workshop, I had to drop everything when I learned that my sister-in-law Kelle had passed away from an accidental overdose. 

At first my clients were incredibly understanding. They told me to do whatever I needed to do and to get back in touch when I felt ready. But after three weeks had passed, they (rightfully) started to wonder if they were going to get what they were paying me for. I half-heartedly finished out the projects underway, but struggled to find meaning in the work. My grief played a huge part in this, but my perspective on the value of data visualization had also changed. I wrote about this on twitter and on my blog at the time, and after having even more time to reflect here's what I think happened...

In my effort to process and understand what happened to Kelle, I did what I knew best: I dug deep into the data. I researched the opiate epidemic in great detail, exploring interactive visualizations and articles. I read a few books on the subject of addiction and approached the whole thing from a scholarly perspective. I guess I thought it would make me feel better to be able to explain from an academic perspective how Kelle could have hidden her battle with such a life crushing disease from all of us for so long, and why she ultimately lost the fight.

You can probably guess that this didn't work at all. In fact, looking at all of the heat maps and statistical maps made me really mad. THESE ARE ACTUAL PEOPLE, with families! and children! and friends that love them! How can you boil them down to units of 100? I was infuriated by the field, and the 2016 election coverage did NOT help. More maps, more contrasting colors, more meta statistical analysis of complex personal dynamics. And guess what? the numbers were wrong! I also came across this TED talk that confirmed a lot of my underlying questions about the world of algorithms and analytics.

So I ended 2016 in a very confusing place. I lost all of my trust and love for data. I didn't want to sell people any more on the value of communicating data, because I didn't truly believe in that value. I wanted to explore human connection and bring the people behind the numbers to the forefront. But I had no idea how to do that. 

Redefining Data

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I entered 2017 with no plan other than to follow my curiosity and intuition. Early in the year my husband and I decided to move across the country in search of adventure, so I focused a lot of energy on putting those pieces in place. At the same time, I completed a few projects that began to hint at where my work would be heading-- I wanted people to know that there are humans behind every number, so I began to draw more humans into the work. 

At the same time, I really focused on listening to my clients more than explaining. People reach out to me for data storytelling, so what exactly do they think data storytelling is? I learned there is a vast range of definitions for the term, and I accepted that each definition is accurate. 

I also began to embrace the word "artist" when used to describe me. I used to bristle and resist the title "data artist" because I felt like it minimized the power and importance of the numbers and analysis. But this power had significantly decreased in my mind- and it was replaced by the power of human connection. If my work can connect others and influence them to see things with a more open mind, who cares if it is called art or something more scientific? 

Finally, I stopped caring (or am in the process of trying to stop caring) about pleasing everyone. I know that sometimes I may create work that gets others fired up because of my chart types, data sources, or other design decisions. But the only people I need to focus on pleasing are myself and my clients. 

So if there's one thing I'm certain of, it's that I haven't fully figured this out. But I'm also certain that I feel better about where I'm headed and I'm falling back in love with data. My new definition of data is a collection of all of the great inputs I heard from my friends and clients, plus my personal perspective of the human elements that connect us all.