Data Viz: My First Year Anniversary is Coming Up

It’s almost January 2020. It’s almost the one year anniversary since I began my data visualization journey. My guide: Alberto Cairo.

Those three facts have such meaning as I write this post some 30,000 feet somewhere over the Eastern seaboard between Florida and Washington, DC after the most intense semester yet. I’m exhausted. I’m full of emotion. I’m grateful, once again, for the experience. (I published this after arriving home and some much-needed sleep.)

January 2020 means the upcoming spring semester will be my last as a graduate student.

I started courses in the Interactive Media program in the Fall of 2018 at the University of Miami within the School of Communication. I’ll graduate in the spring and have a Master of Fine Arts. Yes, I can predict the future!

It also means I have one more semester to take advantage of any class that will help me to learn more skills to continue to practice data visualization. I’m limited to three and here is what I chose:

Advanced Infographics

The title is misleading and D3.js will be the focus of this course in addition to workflow best practices and of course, storytelling. I’m looking forward to taking what I was able to learn from data viz studio to this next course. I’m also certain additional online courses will be necessary. I’m eager to finish going through Amelia Wattenberger’s book, Full Stack D3 and Data Visualization and go through this Udemy course (Black Friday deals on courses FTW) and perhaps this course about React and D3. We’ll see.


Another one of my classes will be a WebGIS class in the Department of Geology and Regional Studies at the University of Miami. Now, had I known I would have fallen in love with data visualization, I would have pursued the Certificate in Geospatial Technology while simultaneously pursuing my M.F.A. Alas, a missed opportunity and I’ll take the one course I can while I have the chance.

One of the great bennies of being a student again are the unbelievable resources available to you. The Otto G. Richter Library has an incredible collection of maps. Abe Parrish is also the resident GIS Services Librarian and a few weeks ago, he was kind enough to set me up with a GIS account to access various ESRI GIS software and learning videos so I can prep for my class next semester. I’m excited. Maps bring back fond memories of being in the car with my dad and being the official family road trip navigator.

My first data viz project about why seniors are struggling in Florida.

My Capstone Project

After a lot of back and forth on a capstone focus, I decided to focus on exploring and understanding a photography competition archive. Yes, more unstructured data. This was after a more product-based focus to design a solution specifically for women managing menopause or even perimenopause. I was advised to not go down that route and I’ll write more about that later.

Circling back to my capstone, it is an archive of more than 40,000 images with a lot of other data types associated with it. My December will be spent getting to know what data I have from the competition and also what data from other sources could supplement it.

This is going to be fun as I’ve spent most of my career working very closely with photographers in newsrooms, hiring them, collaborating with them on books and lastly, helping them navigate marketing when social media started to become the norm and websites were shifting from Flash to HTML. This experience feels a bit like coming home. Changed, but still me with plenty to offer the community.

My second data viz project about HIV and how it has changed in the United States.

In One Year, I’ve Learned a Lot

I started my first data viz class in January 2019. I didn’t know what to expect so I didn’t. I had read a bit about Alberto Cairo before I arrived at UM which made my decision to attend UM all the better. It spoke to the School’s commitment to hiring working professionals and attracting the best from the industry.

But Infographics and Data Visualization, a specialization within the Interactive Media program was not my focus. I went to UM to learn more about and fill in the gaps with UX research and UX Design from Dr. Barbara Millet. Infographics and Data Visualization, I thought, would be great to learn more about since it would complement ux design and research. The fact that I would learn from a well-respected journalist, designer and professor? Cool, icing on the cupcake.

Imagine my surprise when I started thinking about shifting focus to data visualization. It wasn’t just another cool class, I suddenly started to think about doing it long term. Really? Now?

All spring, I went going back and forth. At one point I was fully committed. No. Yes. No. Yes. The debate in my head raged on through the remainder of the semester and through the summer. Do I switch? Then it dawned on me: Why do I need to switch? I could learn as much as possible about UX design and data visualization. There is clearly an intersection.


So while I continued to learn more ux design and ux research, Alberto was patient and always supportive regarding my plans for my future (graduation and job hunting). He also continued to encourage me (and all of his students) to fill in my knowledge gaps: statistics, R, D3… but also to read more about psychology, sociology, etc. Read, read, read.

Now, that may sound like more work (yes, it is) but I’ve come to learn that when professors encourage knowledge-building, you have to be grateful. To be in an environment such as the University of Miami is a privilege. To have someone care enough about your intellectual well-being and education so that you can become successful in the fullest sense as a designer and as a citizen and be enriched as a human being is pay dirt.

My third data viz project: The sentiment of Anne Sexton’s poems.

So in one year, I learned:

  • How to use Illustrator more than I did
  • How to use Flourish, RawGraphs, InZight, Data Illustrator
  • How to find stories that could use an infographic or a visualization
  • How to read and pull apart charts more than I did
  • The language of Graphicacy
  • What charts are good starting points for certain types of data
  • How to question charts I see all around me
  • How to explore data
  • When to and how to question data
  • How to use excel more than I had ever before
  • Why annotation layers are important
  • Why the “run of the mill” bar chart is not so run of the mill
  • How to build a chart in D3
  • How to use Tableau, DataWrapper, Charticulator
  • How to use CSSGrid
  • How to use CSS for animation
  • How to use R
  • Learning and continuing to learn statistics (now with R!)
  • How to do the basics of sentiment analysis
  • Who the movers and shakers are in Data Visualization
  • Where data visualization is being created and environments that understand its value in communicating information
  • To be open to the different ways of visualizing data
  • To remember to read about the empirical research done with data visualization
  • How to better manage your time
  • How to be a more informed, responsible citizen and designer

The list above is a shortlist and an incomplete list. Also, Alberto didn’t teach me everything on this list. I have a small but close community of fellow classmates — Alyssa, Qinyu, Maria, Mackenzie, Melissa— who also contributed to my learning. Still, Alberto provided me with a safe and equitable environment in which to learn. He gave gentle reminders when I made mistakes or misjudged. He was patient when I didn’t understand. He was also frank and asked tough questions. Most of all, he encouraged a “can do” attitude. All of these qualities factored into why I want to continue to learn and most definitely practice more data visualization. I’m looking forward to one more semester to take full advantage of his presence at UM for my capstone and to help me prep for my next journey.

Women in Data Viz: No Small Effect

Alberto brought in so many female data visualization speakers that as a woman, I couldn’t help but be inspired and encouraged. We women share similar struggles, stories, and wins. It was nice to hear them speak openly and honestly. To also learn that some did not have computer science, statistical or math backgrounds and still become successful data journalists and designers made me hopeful. Well, if they can do that, I can too. I may be late to start but if I can accomplish what I have in a year, stay tuned for what I will in the next.

2020 is looking good.

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