Getting Feedback: Pandemic Edition

Note: I’m a graduate student at the University of Miami working on my capstone, a visualization of the Pictures of the Year International Archives. If you’re curious about my journey, here are my posts tagged with capstone.

So, as you may have guessed most universities went remote with classes. We had an extra week of spring break so that faculty and students could make some adjustments. I was thrilled to hear it because I’m still juggling caring for my hubs and trying to make the best of sorting out how to get groceries, what to cook (empty shelves of meat – really?), how long viruses live on surfaces (deliveries), and where to find masks and hand sanitizer. I was prepared long before most people but things have clearly gotten much worse and the scale of how the U.S. is so unprepared… I’m still digesting that.

Still, I want to make it clear that my situation is much better than most. I’m one of the lucky ones. I just wish people weren’t taking this out on Asians. But I’m not going there. It’s just another layer of stress. There have been a few incidents at the local grocery stores. Another reason I have avoided going out.


One of the hardest aspects about remote is that everyone has different tools they use. I hear Zoom is the meeting app of choice but I prefer Slack (Yes, there is video) because it allows you to share all types of content and the integration is stellar. Zoom doesn’t allow for sharing of content, only sharing of screens.

So I had to figure out a way to share the many charts I’ve been exploring. Sending out screen grabs and attachments in an email is tedious and doesn’t work. I thought about using Google Slides but the format and proportions are clunky.

Enter Mural.

I discovered this tool eons ago but rediscovered it while doing some team work for I believe our UX Research Methods class. It is an awesome whiteboard/collaboration tool. Super easy to use.

My explorations using RawGraphs, Flourish, and DataWrapper

The great part about Mural is that people can leave notes and draw on the board. Even during a screen share, you can see where people are drawing so communication is clear. I’m sure I haven’t used all the great features they offer and I’m looking forward to learning more about it. Right now, everything feels like “just learn enough” to get the project done!

Weekly Meetings

One of my advisors, Dr. Barbara Millet, set up a weekly meeting for all of her advisees. This was great because I could get additional feedback on the direction of my charts and focus from three classmates plus Dr. Millet on top of feedback from Alberto Cairo. Two advisors is a win-win. They offer different perspectives and see different aspects. I couldn’t have asked for a better “committee”. I also met with Lenny Martinez who is teaching many of us an intro to D3.js. My other source of feedback was my husband, who not long ago, expressed his frustration with charts online: “Some take took long to figure out”. He was my litmus test.

So, the best combination for feedback during a pandemic?

It depends on your project but for dataviz, I found weekly meetings, two advisors with Mural, What’s App, Slack and Zoom to be helpful.

But the first piece is you. If you are healthy and have the time to get out of bed, turn off Netflix … create!

Home and Charting with Caveats

Grad school. Coronavirus. Caregiving.

Some days you just need to cry and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am fully aware that I lead a privileged life. I’m one of the fortunate ones for the immediate future but I gotta say, caregiving and trying to wrap up your MFA course work during the middle of a pandemic maxes out your stress levels. I know enough about cortisone to know that this is not good. But, what choice do I have?

The bright side is that I’m home. If I was stuck in Florida, things could be much worse. I have a whole new level of empathy for caregivers around the world, in situations much more vulnerable than I. Good grief.

The down side is that I’m unable to focus on my course work. Without going into detail, just imagine having to be everywhere for everything your spouse needs. Every. basic. need. Plus it hurts me to see him in pain.

I can only hope he’ll get better soon. I’m trying to stay positive. Inside I’m crying.

The Virus. What’s Next?

This isn’t specifically related to capstone but it is enough of a concern for me that I’m wondering how I’ll be able to focus. Spring break is next week. I’m dreading the return of fellow students on campus the week after. Hello, travel, virus … how can the university even think to have students return? My husband is supposed to visit and right now I’m warning that he should not get on a plane. He wants to play it by ear and I’m wondering how I’ll get home. Will planes be shut down? Roads closed? I dread the idea of being in Florida and unable to get home …

The crazy thing is that my friend Qinyu and I have been talking about how the virus is probably going to spread like wildfire after spring break. It makes sense. Students are traveling abroad, going to the beaches, crowded beaches. No one else seems worried except for maybe our other good friend Maria. But then we can talk ourselves out of it based on numbers and that it isn’t here (Coral Gables)…yet.

I just have a bad feeling and right now, no confidence in the University due to a lack of communication. It isn’t brain surgery in my mind. Millions traveled out of China via Wuhan. That says it all, right???

Focus on Gender

Note: I’m a graduate student at the University of Miami working on my capstone, a visualization of the Pictures of the Year International Archives. If you’re curious about my journey, here are my posts tagged with capstone.

Well, it’s roughly mid-semester and I feel like I haven’t made much progress though I’ve been working non-stop acquiring data and manually fixing errors as much as I am able. In my excitement, I proposed a project that is probably more than what can be done in just a few months. Given I’m a one-woman band and its been established that there’s quite a bit of missing data, analyzing the entire POYi archives — photos, text and numbers — won’t be feasible in the time I have left.

Two Paths

  1. Focus on 10 or 20 years (which years, to be determined) and go deep; meaning: look at gender, color analysis, text analysis, similarity, etc.
  2. Focus on gender because it is the one variable that has a low percentage of missing data.

I’m more excited about the first than the latter but what concerns me about going deep is that each one of those types of analysis could become huge. I would want to learn the process Nicholas Rougeux took to analyze colors of the New Yorker and for similarity, I would learn the process outlined by the Yale Humanities Lab. In fact, I already started testing (see gif below) but the next steps require some serious brainpower (focus), and honestly, the coronavirus is making me a bit crazy and news-obsessed.

I got this to work! A test using Tensorflow from documentation by the Yale Digital Humanities Lab

Practical Path

So, the ambitious side of me needs to chill which means I’ll go with path 2 and focus on gender. It’s realistic, I think. But I still need to determine what the time period will be and for how long. Ten years seems too little. Twenty seems like a good timeframe. I want a time period where there might be some great context to the charts.

My big concern is that an analysis on demographics might be too boring. Who wants to be boring??? If there was information about race or ethnicity, that could be more interesting but alas, there is not.

Time to not worry about it and just move forward.

Data Visualization Design Process

Note: I’m a graduate student at the University of Miami working on my capstone, a visualization of the Pictures of the Year International Archives. If you’re curious about my journey, here are my posts tagged with capstone.


One of the most challenging aspects of grad school while juggling a research assistant position and course work is setting aside time to write documentation about your process. You are moving so fast and switching mindsets between projects, classes, and types of projects (writing for documentation and narratives is different from an academic paper) that documentation is the least of your concerns. But, it has to be done because without it, you’ll forget. There’s nothing quite as bad as when you realized you’ve made a mistake and need to process data over again or recreate a chart with new data after filtering many different sets!

“Expect to make mistakes”.

Cameron Riopelle, Head of Data Services, Richter Library, University of Miami Libraries is credited with expressing that to me during one of our meetings. I took it to heart especially given the fact that I’m doing a lot of manual data munging.

So, what is my data visualization process?

The design process is exactly what I’ve been thinking about since starting this capstone because I never really put one together. It was always organic and most of what I’ve been learning is Design Thinking, Human-Centered Design (HCD), in addition to the benefit of UX Research Methods.

I think there are definite overlaps and application of design thinking and HCD in data visualization since most designers (I hope) place emphasis on effective, efficient, and satisfactory experiences. Data visualization is about communication, after all. Optimizing for a positive user experience is at the heart of most design solutions; however, the struggle I’ve had is when a project is forced into a process that isn’t the best fit and the deliverables aren’t the best match. But to say that and not provide an alternative is where there are problems. It’s like criticizing a person’s work but not offering up ideas or suggestions.

Look to the experts

In an effort to offer an alternative and figure out a design process that is specific to data visualization for my own sanity, I consulted books and the Google. I discovered another great article by those fine peeps at DataWrapper. What Questions to Ask When Creating Charts hit the nail on the head for me. As Lisa says, “The process of creating a data visualisation can be messy”.

Two of the six data viz workflows she shares resonate with me more than the others though Lisa’s process is a definite bonus and functions as a reminder when you lose your way. I’ll try to explain later but for now, the first data viz workflow is from Ben Fry. It’s from his book, “Visualizing Data: Exploring and Explaining Data with the Processing Environment“.

The Seven Stages of Data Visualization by Ben Fry.

What I like about this process is that it is very much focused on the data and understanding it. It is also not an assembly line as it is iterative and that you may need to go back to some aspects as you progress to others.

The other workflow I felt was a good fit is Andy Kirk’s Four Stages of the Data Visualization Design Process:

Andy Kirk’s process from his book, Visualizing Data which is in its Second Edition.

It has fewer steps at the top level there are similarities that encompass a lot of Ben Fry’s process at the second level within each stage. I’ve been trying to read this off and on for days … The process above he shares early in the book.

The third is Lisa Charlotte Rost’s process.

For me, her process falls somewhere between Ben Fry’s Represent and Refine phases and Andy Kirk’s Stage 3 and Stage 4. Only once you understand the data (What’s your Point?) can you move to Proof and Explaining.

“Reducing the randomness of your approach”

That’s from Andy Kirk’s book, Data Visualization: A Handbook for Data Driven Design. It seems obvious enough, right? Well, if I get to read more this semester, perhaps that crazy tangled ball of yarn won’t be so tangled in the future!