Final Project: The Changing Landscape of HIV

I started work on my final project for Professor Cairo’s Intro to Visualization course. My topic: HIV. This was based on a story I read in The New York Times about how HIV has become most prevalent in the South, in rural areas, and among gay, male, people of color. I wanted to explore how HIV has shifted over the years.

Above are my most recent drafts and I think I finally have a direction I feel confident about. It’s quite astonishing the number of details and polish required before a visualization feels complete especially in print.

What I’m working on to refine:

  • Color choices. I think one of the greatest challenges is creating a color palette that is attractive and is colorblind safe. This is harder than it may seem.
  • Copy. Writing never comes easy to me, so this is going to take more time than anything else.
  • Typography. This is a particular favorite of mine. I love type and tweaking its use… well, I might need to cut myself off. I use Suitcase to manage my type library so I’ve created a folder just for typefaces that work well for data visualizations.

Professor Cairo mentioned how 80 percent of visualization is understanding the data. This project is proof that statement is true.

Data from the CDC’s Annual HIV Surveillance PDFs.

The Excel workbook above is just one of many I created and combed through to understand what the numbers show. In my case, I needed to visualize it because with a table this large it is difficult to see or compare much of anything.

My initial plan was to show the shift of HIV in the U.S. over 20 years. But after downloading 20 years of PDFs and using Tabula to extract the data, I discovered that in 2007, a change in how the data was reported presented me with anomalies and a decision; actually a question. What do I do? In sketching the numbers with Flourish, there was clearly a dip that without a note people could interpret incorrectly. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

There were two options, according to Professor Cairo:

  • Annotate 2007 with a note about the change in reported data
  • Visualize only last decade.

I chose the latter because after reading through the technical notes, 2008 was when all states had enough data and it could be standardized. What is shocking to me is that data about HIV wasn’t standardized until 2008!

Above is a sketch of visualizing HIV diagnosis in nearly every state. Its more than our project brief required because there isn’t room for a grid of mini line charts but once I started to see how each state compared to each other and the national rate between 2008 and 2017, I couldn’t stop. The group of this mini line charts is visually interesting. I plan to organize each one regionally and in the future, I want to explore further iterations.

The Functional Art: Interview with Stefanie Posavec

Of all the interviews in The Functional Art, the interview with Stefanie Posavec is my favorite.

Alberto Cairo: How did you do the graphics? Did you do use any scripts to count the words, organize them, sort them according to themes, etc.?

Stefanie Posavec: Believe it or not, I didn’t. I did it all by hand.

The Functional Art, p. 343

Wow.

Literary Organism, by Stefanie Posavec. Source: http://www.stefanieposavec.com

I am aware that I need to automate, but sometimes I feel that it’s important to spend that kind of time gathering your information by hand. It feels a little more natural. Also, it creates bonds with what you are working on: I had to read On the Road over and over again, so the outcome was as much a representation of the text as it is a representation of the novel in my head, of my experience of exploring it.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 343

Stefanie’s reply resonates with me so much yet, I have to give this more thought as I’m sleep deprived and my head is a bit scrambled from switching mind gears for each project, but here’s the immediate thought: As a graduate student in an interactive media program, naturally, there is great focus on code and digital. While people, through emphasis on user experience and user research, are at the center of what students create, I’ve often wondered if students, my classmates, feel a connection to the experiences they are creating.

Does that sound weird? I can hear the other side of myself asking, “Why do we need to connect with what we are creating?”

Seriously though, do screens and the code that have been designed to help us making things more efficiently, disconnect us from the experience, the tactile and physical nature of human movement, of making? By removing the slowness of making by hand and touching materials disconnect us as makers, as designers?

Highlighted pages of Stefanie Posavec’s copy of On the Road. Source: ImageKind

When is the last time you really looked at a book and didn’t take it for granted?

I’ve designed photo books where I’ve worked with photographers editing with printed thumbnails and taking those sequences to InDesign and printing tons of dummies, mockups to get a feel for the experience. Then if I could be so lucky, see the book printed.

But I gotta say, nothing compares to literally making a book. I personally am not very good at it as I’m a beginner but when you make a book by hand, you start to truly understand and appreciate every page, measurement, type placement, paper (oh the paper!), fold, stitch and more. It feels more personal.

What is our relationship with books? What is your relationship with books? What is a book?

It’s clear I love paper books. I suppose it isn’t “right” to love paper books in this age of climate change, waste, trash and environmental impact but I can’t help it. It’s an emotional relationship. I love the simplicity of interactions: using your hands and a pen to highlight words, jot down notes in the margins, fold the corners to book mark a page … The fact that you can bring it anywhere (well, depending on size and weight), you don’t need electricity though you may need a light when it is dark.

Above all, I understand more when I read from printed words. I’m not sure what it is but if I read, highlight, and write in a book, I retain the information more. It just isn’t the same with the Kindle, PDFs, or web-based books. If paper books ever disappear, I’m going to be in trouble.

Stefanie’s visualization, Writing Without Words: Sentence Drawings of every sentence from On the Road is the transformation of the experience of the book. It is beautiful, poetic, musical. It looks like an expression of our natural world. Looking at it, I’m reminded of mold, of crystallization, of the beauty of science and biology.

It’s always about awe and wonder for me. That’s why I have decided to call myself a data illustrator, rather than a data visualizer. The reason is that I really like the idea of using data to communicate more subjective concepts about the topics I cover. Everything is accurate in my graphics, but they are not necessarily designed just for efficiency, they are not always what you would call information design.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 348

Sometime I think in the age of digital we have forgotten about awe and wonder; to look at the world as new beings, like children.

Yet, the side of me that loves technology has experienced awe and wonder in multi-layered experiences, especially in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) … Magic Leap being one of my favorites along with Tilt Brush on the Oculus.

Perhaps it isn’t a choice…it isn’t binary but a place where I want to sit; where I want to practice. Hmm…

Stefanie’s interview reminds me that I don’t ever want to be removed from what I create or heaven forbid, dispassionate. Emotions are healthy as much as they can be annoying. They are as beautiful as they are difficult to experience through others and within ourselves.

Florida: Why Are So Many Seniors Struggling?

Well, here it is. My first data visualization for Professor Cairo’s Intro to Data Visualization course.

The project brief: Create a visualization of financial hardship in Florida based on The A.L.I.C.E. Report provided by United Way. Requirements included:

  • Tell a compelling focus or narrative
  • Deliver a tabloid sized visualization
  • Deliver a mobile version
  • Apply all we have read and learned so far from lectures and our readings

Above are just a sample of my notes and outlining in an attempt to get a clearer picture of what story I wanted to tell. There’s a lot of repetition and it is reflective of feeling paralyzed as I was drowning in ideas and data. Apparently, this feeling is normal. This intel reinforces the fact that calling the experts is a must-do.

My first draft. Scary awful. Drowning and uncertain.
Another draft after a couple of weeks.

I learned a lot from this project and these are the top three:

Sketch early and often. Use the same data and try different visualizations. This is key for me. The benefit of experience is that I know my self and I need to see to understand and learn. Tools like Flourish make sketching much easier and faster.

Keep organized. I have to come up with a folder structure toute suite and at the moment, I decided to add the source to the beginning of the folder and files of the data I download. I was swimming in Excel files. Nothing is worse than spending the time hunting among hundreds of files for the source of the data.

Stop digging and start making. This is related to my first lesson on sketching early and often. Seriously, I could have gone on for weeks plunging deeper and deeper on the interconnectedness of our policies and the effect on our communities. It is easy to get sidetracked and lose focus. Still, what you find sometimes can be gems for other visualizations!

One more major project to go …