Notes from the Classroom: Three Data Visualization Experts

It’s always inspiring to hear from people who love what they do. Our Data Visualization Studio class was fortunate to welcome three (remote) guest speakers: Luís Melgar, Julia Wolfe and Maarten Lambrechts. I want to share my notes and takeaways both as a reminder for myself and to share with anyone learning more about data visualization like me. Warning: This is a long post.

Luís Melgar: learn something new & a great way to Quiet Imposter Syndrome

Profile at Guns in America

What I particularly loved about Luís’s talk was the mix of professional and personal advice. It was positive and endearing, a talk that makes you feel good and ok exactly where you are.

Keep a data journal

  • Log your data, track your sources to maintain sanity. Truth, this. If you’ve ever felt like you were drowning in data or hunting for sources in the middle or near the end of a project, this is your life jacket.
  • Write down what you did with the data, how you came up with your conclusions. This is accountability.
  • Track your path to the very end.

Data is imperfect

I love how Luís phrased this tip: interview your data.

Questions to ask:

  • Where is it coming from?
  • What form?
  • How it is defined?
  • What questions does it bring to mind?
  • How was the data collected?
  • Who collected the data?

Get clarity. What can you really see from the data? Dig into it.

Advice about coding

  • Is your code reproducible?
  • Make it easy to track mistakes
  • Comment your code
  • Use another language to double-check your calculations
  • Test, test, test
  • Review, review, review
  • Check, check, check.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Learn something new

Pick a project, set a goal. Do it.

Expect the unexpected

Some people may give you data in a PNG. No, really.

Below: Two graphs from Left In Carry-Ons, TSA Agents Find Thousands Of Guns At Security Checkpoints by Luís Melgar.


Make peace with yourself

Coding is hard. So, for those who aren’t natural coders, it’s OK if you can’t execute what you have in your mind. Luís shared his experience working on his Master’s capstone and some of the hurdles he came across and how he learned to adapt and work around his own limitations.

Know your technical limitations

Different companies and organizations use a wide range of publishing tools. Understand what is possible within those constraints.

Always keep your audience in mind

Make your visualizations responsive and usable on mobile. This is a must.

Don’t ask for too much advice.

This tip made me think of some photographers I know who seem to ask too many people to give them feedback about their work. Let me clarify: I think it is OK to ask as many people as you want but take advice from just a few— the people you trust most. It was nice to hear Luis same the same. Basically everyone has an opinion but whom do you trust?

Love your Classmates

Yes indeed. Luís shared a funny photo of some of his classmates (with some random dude cute out – lol) and how he continues to stay in touch. He shared a couple of memories about music and food which was sweet and funny.

Life is about relationships. The relationships you build or burn in graduate school will have a big impact on your life moving forward. Take the time to learn something new about the people you see every day. They will enrich your life in so many ways.

Keep a notebook of success stories

This. I was surprised to hear him talk about imposter syndrome and it was refreshing to hear someone with so much more experience share that even he suffers from it from time-to-time. He shared how women and minorities tend to experience it more. Interesting.

His solution? Keep a notebook close by where you write down your success stories —what you have learned or accomplished. Big or small. When you are feeling like an imposter, or perhaps just feeling a bit low or unsure, refer to your notebook. It’ll make you feel better; that you are making progress; that you are learning; that you are exactly where you need to be and where you are supposed to be.

Thank you Luís. It was wonderful and inspiring to hear from a graduate of our program.

Julia Wolfe: Data Journalism Needs You

Profile at FiveThirtyEight
Tweet, Tweet

If you are journalist with technical skills, the outlook is good.

Julia Wolfe, Data Journalist, FiveThirtyEight

Julia’s talk made me think about why I have such an interest in data visualization. She shared what she loves about it and I had to agree that her reasons for being a data journalist are compelling:

  • The day-to-day variety
  • Learn something new often
  • The work you do is for public good. You can help clear up misinformation and help explain why [x} affects daily life.
  • Telling stories

She also gave us some insight about what makes working at FiveThirtyEight different from working at large newspapers and also highlighted a few other places that are doing great data journalism:

A detail from, What First-Quarter Fundraising Can Tell Us About 2020 by Julia Wolfe.

One of my favorite visualizations about the Democratic candidates. The animation is such a nice touch.

Data, Design & Code Advice

Her advice aligns with much of what Alberto has shared as well as what I’ve read in books and online. It helps to hear similar advice but in a different way.

  • Analyze data: Find the story. What are your questions?
  • Be skeptical of the data
  • Talk with a subject matter expert or know enough about the subject to either spot something surprising or identify a problem.
  • Understand basic design sensibilities: Color, hierarchy, white space, alignment, typography.
  • Edit and proof: Layer your workflow and establish a process for self-editing.
  • Comment your code so you can remember it later. Save every step.
  • Keep your data organized
  • Do rigorous spot checking
  • Make sure your source aligns with your visualizations
  • Check your outliers. Are they reflected in the source?
  • Provide documentation. As you work, make notes or comments about what you found and how. You may need it to back up your work, your conclusions.
  • Bring context to data and moments.


  • Learn how to get and scrape data. What kind of unique data can you get; something that no one else has?
  • Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Luís Melgar mentioned this as well. Understand how to file a FOIA request. (See links below)
  • Excel. Ramp up your skills.
  • Reporting. Hit the streets if needed.
  • Interview. Yes, talk to people!


  • Understand state laws. What are you legally within right to request and what are institutions required to give you? I loved this tip. I learned state laws and policy is important secondary research for product design, too.
  • Understand different data formats: PDF? Excel? I took this to also mean, understand how to read them and how to extract data from PDFs (Tabula to the rescue …)

Conferences to Attend

Twitter is a must

Enough said.

More Resources

Julia provided us with some great resources (note: I’m not 100% sure about all these links but if they aren’t exactly what she had in mind, I hope they come close):

Thanks Julia for all the great tips and speaking with us so honestly. You are an inspiration.

I’m excited and eager to hear from more women in data viz.

Maarten Lambrechts

Tweet, Tweet

Maarten walked us through his process for Why Budapest, Warsaw, and Lithuania split themselves in two published on The Pudding. It was fascinating to hear about how he was first introduced to the story and how he worked with the team at The Pudding to get it published. Takeaway: if your pitch to one person or place doesn’t get accepted, keep trying.

I’m glad he did because he made a story I would probably pass over into a story I wanted to read. Even more, I wished for a follow-up. What more could I learn? For example, when he shared a brief look at his sketches and a sentiment analysis he had done, I wanted to learn more. What patterns are developing in Europe?

Details from Why Budapest, Warsaw, and Lithuania Split Themselves into Two

This is where things start to get interesting.
Love this transition and alternate view of looking at the same data.

Honestly, Maarten’s talk was a good inside look at what it takes to be a data journalist/ data visualization designer. It was a bit of a wake up call, too. It takes a certain level of tenacity, a doggedness, if you will. Perhaps this is why I latched on to a quote he made during an interview with Open Belgium 2016:

If you want to become a data journalist, you should start thinking like a programmer.

Maarten Lambrechts

There’s just something about programming that is empowering. Perhaps because it forces you to look at a problem in many different ways. It changes how you think about things, look and interact with the world. Hmm…

Like many other professions, what most people see is the finished, polished work. Viewers/readers don’t see what goes on behind the curtain. That’s what I enjoyed most about Maarten’s talk. He showed us his sketches, his thinking; what worked, what didn’t. It was a comfort to see the mess.

Thank you Maarten for the incredible resources and sharing your story with us. Consider me a new fan of your blog.


Wow, you made it to the bottom. Nice.

Thank you data visualization community for your generosity. Ya’ll are icing on the cupcake.

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