Data Viz Done Right

November 15, 2013

VizCup roundup–2nd place: Mike Evans, UFO Sightings on Your Birthday

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This is a guest post from Mike Evans, the second place finisher at the Facebook VizCup.  I love the clean design and the way that it draws you in the play with it.  Many of us would not have been surprised if this was the winner.  And the fact that Mike flew up from LA just for this event…wow!  Truly inspirational!

Panic.  It was late. The night before the first-ever VizCup at Facebook Headquarters.  I needed a phenomenal data visualization that I could reproduce from scratch on site within a 60 minute time limit.  The data set on UFO sightings I’d been poring over revealed no compelling story.  I’d come up all the way from Orange County to compete and if inspiration didn’t strike soon, I was going to be embarrassed.  I switched to a soccer data set.  I know very little about soccer, but I’m generally a sports fan.  I quickly had a semi-interesting question.  “Can your team pull off a comeback in the Premier League when losing at halftime?”  The visual looked ok.  

Comeback Premier League

Something wasn’t right though.  Do soccer fans call it “halftime”?  When I’m presenting this should I actually call it soccer or football?  The other thing I didn’t like was that what I really wanted to answer was how likely a team could win when coming from behind at different points in the game.  That couldn’t be answered from the data set.  Plus I’d only have an hour during the competition to build a great viz and I already had to do a bunch of reshaping of the soccer data to answer this question.  Reshaping was time consuming and increased my chances of a making a mistake or encountering a technical issue. 

So I switched back to the UFO data.  Stupid UFO data.  Maybe there was a relationship between “The X-Files" episode airing dates in the 1990s and UFO sightings?  Did the higher rated episodes correlate to higher sightings that night?  That was a dead end.  Stupid, stupid UFO data.  A little while later I’d plotted out the average delay in reporting UFOs by region.  Turns out that some UFO sightings were reported many decades after they were seen, and different states had different averages.  Yawn.  I grew bored and took a break.  I started wondering if there might be a UFO sighting on my birthday on Jan 16, 1977.  Turns out there wasn’t.  Hmmm, well what about any sightings on Jan 16 of any year?  Cool, there were a bunch.  Is that a high number compared to other days?  I wonder how many were on my anniversary?  Wait!  This is great idea for a viz!!!

That was really the inspiration for my viz and I spent my remaining prep time coming up with the best design I could think of that would still be easily reproduced in less than an hour in an unfamiliar environment competing against some of the most talented people in the industry.  And so the “UFOs on Your Birthday?” Viz was born and earned the “First Runner Up” status at the Inaugural Facebook Viz Cup.

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