Happy new year! I hope you were able to take some time over the holidays to be joyful and recharge and are ready to welcome the coming year.
For me, 2018 was a year of change: my family’s move from San Francisco to Milwaukee meant a new city, a different time zone, an unfamiliar house, an unknown school, new friends (plus variant ways of staying connected with those we already had), changed proximity to family (closer to some, further from others), extreme weather (amazing how quickly hot and humid can turn to freezing!) and many other changes. As I look ahead, I expect 2019 will be a year of reforged stability and growth.
The beginning of each year for me tends to be both a time to reflect, as well as a time to consider where and how I might push myself outside of my comfort zone and try new things. I’ll be encouraging you to do the latter through this first 2019 challenge—to try something new (irrespective of whether that makes you uncomfortable, though I’m a strong believer that productive discomfort can be great, as it means you are growing). I challenge you to try a new tool for visualizing data.
Many tools are available for visualizing data. There are spreadsheet applications like Excel or Google Sheets, chart creators like Datawrapper, Flourish, or Infogram, data visualization software like Tableau or PowerBI, you can write code in HTML, R, or Python or leverage libraries like D3.js. This is definitely not a comprehensive list, and I’m excited for the new tools that I expect to be introduced to as a result of this challenge!
When it comes to data visualization tools, my typical advice is to find a tool or set of tools and get to know them well enough so they don’t become limiting factors in the way that you visualize and communicate with data. There is no perfect tool: each has its own set of pros and cons. That’s actually going to be one of the great benefits from this month’s challenge—in addition to learning by testing out an unfamiliar tool directly, I’m hoping that we will all learn about tools from others’ explorations of them as well. I’d love if you could please include commentary with your submission about what you like or find useful or intuitive in the instrument you use, as well as what limitations or frustrations you may have encountered. If you explore additional resources as part of your learning process, please let us know about those (linking when possible) as well!
To kick us off, I figured I should attempt a new tool. I decided to test out Flourish, which touts “powerful, beautiful, easy data visualization” that will allow you to “quickly turn your spreadsheets into stunning online charts, maps, and interactive stories.” I signed up for an account (free, so long as you’re ok with your data and projects being made publicly available, if not you can upgrade to a paid account). I spent a grand total of a single hour (they said quick and my goal is familiarity, not perfection—you can decide for yourself your goal in undertaking this challenge and how long you’d like to spend) poking around and creating a graph.
Flourish is easy to navigate: when you elect to create a data visualization, there is a page of templates to scroll through. These range from all the standard lines and bars to some more nuanced stuff, like connected dot plots and Sankey diagrams (there are also looks to be some good mapping capability). There were also a few scary templates available (“grid of pie charts”), so as with any tool, you still need to use your brain to create something sensical. You can start with any of the templates—which are pre-populated with data—then replace with your own data and make formatting changes as desired. I spent a moment playing with the slopegraph template, which both looks very slick (nice default formatting and built in functionality for highlighting choice lines and pushing others to the background) and I liked how easy it was to toggle between absolute values, rank, and percent change.
When it came to making a graph, I decided to recreate a line graph I recently made in Excel: