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January 29, 2013

Alberto Cairo: Three steps to become a visualization/infographics designer (a Tableau version)


Two weeks ago, we had the huge honor of hosting Alberto Cairo at Facebook for our monthly Data Visualization Meet-up.  And wow was his presentation incredible!  People are still buzzing about it. 

Alberto did a wonderful job of taking us through the decision making processes he’s gone through during his years of creating visualizations and infographics for many media organizations.  One in particular that caught my attention was how he came about creating the cover for his book “the functional art”. 

Alberto walked us through the iterative approach he took to end up with the slope graph on the cover.  He sent me the data (which you can download here) so that I could emulate the design process in Tableau.  Using the “Next” buttons, you can navigate through his approach to see the story unfold.

January 19, 2013

Developing a visualization concept solution – The Andy Kirk way


Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending Andy Kirk’s full-day ‘Introduction to Data Visualisation’ training course with four of my colleagues from Facebook.  If you don’t know Andy, he’s the person behind the excellent data viz website Visualising Data and author of the new book ‘Data Visualization: a successful design process’ (I get my hands on a copy sometime next week).  If Andy’s ever in your area (or your company is ok with a bit of travel expense), I highly recommend his course.

In the course, Andy outlines an five-step design methodology:

  1. Establishing purpose and identifying parameters
  2. Acquire, prepare and explore your data to begin familiarisation
  3. Establish editorial focus about your subject matter
  4. Conceive your visualisation design
  5. Construct, launch and evaluate your visualisation solution

After each of these steps there’s a hands-on group exercise to put each methodology into practice.  The final exercise, “Develop a visualisation concept solution”, required us to take a set of data that was a bit messy (I think Andy did this intentionally but he wouldn’t admit to it), and apply all of the lessons we learned to improve this viz (click on it to make it larger).


The idea was to start with a blank slate, intentionally walk through each step of the design methodology and see what you can build in 45 minutes.  Each team then presented back to the class.

Our team consisted of a MicroStrategy trainer, a data engineer, a BI engineer and myself.  It was such a great experience to build something together and talk through our design…BEFORE we built anything.  Here’s what we came up with:

Andy’s design methodology worked perfectly!  I was amazed at how simple it was to create a usable design, in a short period of time, by slowing down and asking questions that help organize your thoughts.  When I teach, I recommend asking questions as well, but the way Andy recommended asking questions was a bit different than I had done it before.  I can’t wait to use it on a real project.

Thanks Andy, not only for this fabulous course, but for coming to speak to us at Facebook as well.

January 16, 2013

The one chart that shows how the sale of Robin van Persie impacted the fortunes two clubs

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Super Sunday has come and passed along with yet another abject Arsenal performance.  I attended the game with about 100 of my fellow Bay Area Gooners at Maggie McGarry’s in San Francisco. This is THE place to watch Arsenal. 

We were pumped for the game, only to be let down nine minutes into a game by a stupid foul and the subsequent sending off of Laurent Koscielny.  Why wasn’t the BFG Per Mertsacker playing in the first place?  That’s another rant for another time.

Several Gooners at Maggie’s were talking about Arsenal’s lack of ability to dominate the final third of the pitch, which got me daydreaming back to the days of Robin van PersieArsene Wenger sold RVP to Manchester United over the summer, literally telling Sir Alex Ferguson that he was handing him the title.  Of course, RVP has continued scoring like the 3rd best striker in the World.  I think our manager has lost the plot. 

I pulled some data down from the Barclay’s Premier League website to see how teams were performing through 21 fixtures this year compared to last.  I created this:

Tufte introduced slopegraphs in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  This type of chart is useful because is helps quickly highlight:
  • The order of the clubs
  • The specific number of points accumulated by each team in each year
  • The slope reveals the change over time and each club’s rate of change compares easily to other teams
  • There’s almost zero non-data ink.  I say almost because I used red to highlight Arsenal.
Presented this way, the data reveals a few simple observations:
  • Manchester United have opened on the rest of the league this year and that they were in 2nd place last year.
  • The gap between Man U and Arsenal is HUGE this season, which is surely directly correlated the RVP’s transfer.
  • Everton and West Brom have had much stronger starts to the season.  Don’t be shocked if Everton snatches the last Champions League spot.  It sure doesn’t look like Arsenal has the heart to do it.
  • Newcastle sucks this year!
  • Most importantly, we’re only 5 points behind Spurs, whereas we were 10 points behind at this point last year.  If we’re not going to make the Champions League, we could take a bit on consolation in finishing ahead of Spurs.
If you have an ideas on how to turn Arsenal’s season around, please feel free to let the club know.

January 14, 2013

And the winner of the VizWiz Electric City redesign contest is…


John Matyskiel of Ontario, Canada! 

The participants were asked to redesign this viz.  The instructions were intentionally vague and I also intentionally chose a data set that had a few problems.  There were several outstanding entries, for which I’ll highlight a few of my favorites below.

We must start with John’s winning entry, which he built with Adobe Illustrator. 


John Matyskiel

Download a PDF version here to view at full size.

What set John apart from the others was his use of story telling.  I felt like I really learned something after reading John’s work.  Even though I‘m not typically a big fan of stacked bar charts, John’s work for me because visually the bars are asking me to compare travel methods across an individual city, not down the chart.  John makes good use of colors too, keeping travel methods within the same categories in the same color palette.  If I had to pick one thing to improve, it would be to make the gridlines lighter.

For his efforts, John will receive a super warm Facebook hoodie.  I suppose he might need it up in Canada.



Robin Kennedy of The Information Lab in the UK submitted this interactive version built with Tableau.  Click on a City to see the Travel Methods update.  Then click on a Travel Method and see the Country comparisons update.  What’s really neat is how Robin uses different shapes depending on the Travel Method you select.  Try it.


Kalpana Behara submitted this great hand-drawn viz all the way from India (click it to see a larger view).  She’s a cartoonist and a Manchester United fan, but I didn’t count her loyalties against her.  I love the cross-tab view, the good use of colors to categorize the data, and the choice to use a lollipop chart, which emphasize precision (dots) over length (bars).  Her design also makes it easy to see where there are holes in the data.

I’m not sure if Kalpana is trying to tell me something, but there’s a hidden devil on the page.  Subtle indeed…


Kalpana Behara


Tableau Zen Master Joe Mako submitted this simple and clean design built in Tableau.  Needless to say, for anyone that knows Joe, he did a great job of using colors, particularly the shading within categories and is an overall good technical re-design.  What sets John apart from Joe is his story telling.


Joe Mako


Jon Schwabish’s entry was also built with Adobe Illustrator and it’s very similar to Joe Mako’s, except it takes up much more space.  I like how the color of the headers correspond to the colors of the bars. That’s a nice visual cue.  Jon also added some very helpful text.

Jon Schwabish


Thank you to all of those that entered! It was a lot of fun reviewing each submission.  I was amazed at how different people can look at the same data.

And again, congratulations to John Matyskiel!  You’re sweatshirt is on the way.

January 12, 2013

Creating Stream Graphs in Tableau 8 in 6 simple steps (it works in Tableau 7 too, but doesn’t look as cool)


Today I attended Andy Kirk’s “Introduction to Data Visualisation” course, learning a lot about data visualization and constructing stories with data.  One of the topics Andy covers is “Establishing editorial focus with your subject matter”.  During this section Andy showed the now famous stream graph created by the New York Times which visualized box office receipts from 1986-2008.

So at the next break I thought “Hmm…I wonder if I can build a stream graph in Tableau 8” and about 3 minutes later I had the basics built. 

First, you should know that Wikipedia defines a stream graph as “a type of stacked area graph which is displaced around a central axis, resulting in a flowing, organic shape.”  The NYT graph has nice smooth curves from one point to the next, however Tableau doesn’t support smoothed lines.  Bearing this in mind, let me present you with my first stream graph.

There are two particularly nice new features of Tableau 8.  The experience is better in Desktop (or Public) than Server, so if you have the beta, download this workbook and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. Try out the zoom controls.  When you lasso zoom, there’s a really smooth transition.
  2. In Desktop, as you scroll your mouse across the chart, you see dots at the top and bottom of the band for the color you’re over for that day.  It’s super fast and gives you a quicker sense of the height of the color.  Really well done Tableau!


You might be asking how I did this.  It actually is simpler than you might think.  Here’s how you would create a stream graph of Sales based on Order Priority.

Step 1 – Drag Order Date to the Columns shelf, right click on it, and choose Exact Date.

Step 2 – Create a calculated field that determines which Order Priorities go up and which go down.


The trick here is to put a negative in front of sales for some of the Order Priorities.

Step 3 – Drag your new calculated field to the Rows shelf.

Step 4 – Drag Order Priority onto the color shelf (and change the colors if you want…I used the Color Blind palette).

Step 5 – Change the Mark Type to Area

You should now have something like this, which technically is a stream graph and we’re done.


I don’t like the look of this though.  It’s way too jagged and I’d like to smooth it out a bit.  Moving averages are useful with time-series data to smooth out short-term fluctuations (Wikipedia).  A 30-day moving average calculation should do the trick since this is four years worth of data.  A 7-day moving average when there’s a shorter time period (like one year or less) works well, or whatever makes sense for your data.

Step 6 – Right click on the Sales by Order Priority pill on the Rows Shelf and choose Add Calculated field. 


And you’re done.  You should now have a stream graph that looks like this:


For my version above, I did a few more things:

  1. Lots of formatting and cleanup
  2. Played around with the colors to get them the way I wanted (blues on top, oranges below)
  3. Created two parameters that allow the user to pick (1) dimensions to slice the data by and (2) measures to analyze.
  4. Added a time slicer
  5. Put it all on a dashboard, added some annotations, etc.

I’ve yet to convince myself where I’d use these in a business context, but at least I now know how to build them.  How would you use them?

January 8, 2013

I expect more from the CEO & Editor of Business Insider

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A colleague sent me this presentation on The Future of Mobile by Henry Blodget, the CEO & Editor of Business Insider.  Since Mr. Blodget gave the presentation, I can only assume that he approved the content, charts and graphs, though I doubt he actually created them.

I’m incredibly disappointed and surprised that Mr. Blodget would put his name to this presentation.  Not only is he the CEO, but he’s the EDITOR too.  There are so many charts that communicate poorly that I stopped counting.  You’ll find area charts (lots of them), stacked bar charts, pie charts, etc.  He should be embarrassed.  He should know better as an editor.

Maybe if enough of us leave Mr. Blodget feedback on his blog post, then he and his company will finally begin producing good work.  Shouldn’t we expect more from such a reputable company?

Or maybe he should meet with the folks at The New York Times, who continually pump out high quality content.