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Show Me A Story

27 Oct

(The following is from a spotlight talk that I gave at the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Health Sciences Libraries chapter of the Medical Library Association in New Haven, CT, October 25, 2016.)

nahsl_viz_01

nahsl_viz_02I was listening to economist and presentation expert, Jonathan Schwabish’s, PolicyViz Podcast last week. It was an episode from about a month ago; an interview with Andy Kirk, a data visualization specialist and the person behind the terrific website, Visualising Data. Andy is also the author of the new book, Visualizing Data: A Handbook for Data Driven Design, a must-have reference text for anyone seeking to produce effective visualizations. When asked why he wrote the book and the essence behind it, he replied,

Visualization is a game of decisions and to make good decisions you need to be aware of all of the options that you’ve got and then be aware of the influencing factors that shape what choices you can make. What skills have you got? How does that restrict or open up opportunities around chart types or interactivity? What are the formats that you happen to aspire towards and what does that impact in terms of the choices that you have to make for a given context?

I so appreciated this statement for a couple of reasons. First, looking at the act of creating visualizations as a decision-making process gets to the heart of why and how visuals either work or they don’t. In other words, good decision-making is key to good visuals, regardless of all the know-how one might have in terms of tools and/or design. You need to start and end with good decisions. Secondly, you need to have some skills and the more you develop your skills, the greater number of choices you’ll have available to you in the decision-making process. “Aspire.” It’s a grand word.

nahsl_viz_03My story of creating visuals started on a Friday afternoon when I was staring at a spreadsheet/report that I’m frequently asked for in my work. It’s a tracking form of our clinical research scholars, telling the number of grants they’ve applied for, the number and percentage of said applications are funded, the amount of money associated with each, the number of publications they’ve written, and other such metrics that tell the UMCCTS their return on investment, if you will, for these researchers. 

nahsl_viz_04As I was looking at it – and as it was a Friday afternoon and I was needing something fun to do to finish my work week – I wondered if I could draw a picture that told the same story that the numbers and information in this spreadsheet told. I like to draw, so I thought I’d give it a go. I wasn’t sure that my bosses would like it, but I figured it didn’t hurt to try.

So I did just that and ended up with this:nahsl_viz_05Surprisingly, my bosses loved it! And I was quickly asked to make some more, so I did. 

nahsl_viz_06I made one to show how all five UMass campuses are involved with the UMCCTS. I made one highlighting the team science and/or collaborative nature of our sponsored programs. I made one showing the outcomes of our pilot awards, one illustrating the work of the Center for Microbiome Research, and one highlighting the peaks achieved by our Conquering Diseases Program. I covered my office door with them, put them in our monthly newsletter, and eventually we made a page on our Center’s website so that they live online.

nahsl_viz_07Next, we had our annual research retreat and when it came time for me to produce and give a report on the evaluations from the day, I decided to expand my chart-making skills, and learned how to make stacked horizontal bar charts to present the information more clearly and concisely. (Thank you, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic.)

nahsl_viz_08Of course, the more charts I made, the more folks came to me with requests to make more. Each was an opportunity to learn something new, to try something different, to make choices and decisions – some good, some bad, some better. I made slides for a presentation that our Quality Assurance leader was giving to a group of clinical research administrators. 

nahsl_viz_09I made a tree map for the director of our Institutional Review Board. When I showed it to her she asked, “Where’s the pie?” So I made her a pie and she said, “You know, I like the tree better.” Yay! So did I.

nahsl_viz_10I also made her a 100% stacked bar chart to show average IRB approval times and in doing so, also finally made a color template of our UMCCTS colors. (Thank you, Stephanie Evergreen.)

 

nahsl_viz_11And then, taking Andy’s words to heart (before I even knew them) I read and learned and practiced and expanded my skill set, learning dot plots, split bar graphs, lollipop graphs, embedding labels, and creating both heat maps and bar graphs in R. (Thank you, Nathan Yau.) It’s fun and it’s appreciated and it’s become a big part of my job now.

nahsl_viz_12And so when people continue to ask me why I’m no longer a librarian or what an evaluator does, I reply, that I AM a librarian. I’m a librarian who does evaluation and now that I’ve added the drawing pictures aspect to my toolkit, my wife calls me an INFORMATION ARTIST! It’s the best job title that I’ve ever had, by far. 

What I hope everyone takes away from this talk – or this post – is that when it comes to being an information professional, the sky is the limit for all that you can do. Find what you like, find what you do well, find what you want to do, learn what you want to learn, and grow with the profession. It makes for a great career.

Where the Boys Are

22 Sep
sally-and-rosanne

Rosanne Cash … always wonderful!

I attended the wonderful 3-day music festival, FreshGrass, last weekend. I saw a plethora of talent and a whole host of favorite musicians including Rosanne Cash, Glen Hansard, Aoife O’Donovan, Sierra Hull, Ruthie Foster, Alison Brown … but WAIT! By this account, one might think that the festival was dominated by women, but alas, it was far from a reconceived Lilith Fair. No, no. FreshGrass is a bluegrass / roots / Americana music festival and bluegrass / roots / Americana music is dominated by dudes. 

Rather than letting my feminist self get all riled up over the gender gap and put a damper on my fun (because when I get angry I tend to have less fun), I decided instead to make a little data collection and data visualization project out of the experience. That’s fun. 

You can see the total percentage of players, by instrument, in the first graphic. In the second one, each instrument represents one musician. I didn’t count all of the smaller groups on the courtyard stage and the pop-up performers (there were just too many to keep up with), but from casual observation, doing so wouldn’t have changed the results.

What’s all this to say? Probably plenty, but I’m simply going to take it as motivation to keep practicing so that I can do my part to close the gap.

where-the-boys-are_freshgrass-2016

boys-and-girls-clubs

What Happened to May?

31 May

It’s not a good sign for my summer that I lost an entire month of the spring. Ah well… it was a different sort of month, filled with some work events and an unexpected life event that kept me away from my computer for more than a week. But before the entire month passes, let me share some things from my “To Share” folder and keep my streak of active blogging months alive. I’ve been blogging here for going on 4 years and have never had a month without a single post. It’s not happening now!

A couple of interesting projects that I tackled for the month involved (1) creating a social network map using Tableau and (2) designing a lengthy evaluation survey in REDCap. For those interested in details regarding either or both of those tasks, I’ll write up some notes and share them in a future post. For now, let’s empty the folder:

Science

If you work in the biomedical research world – or heck, if you simply follow any news about biomedical research – you’ve surely heard the acronym, CRISPR in the past year or two. The discovery and use of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, CRISPR, for editing genes has been an enormous breakthrough in science. It’s also, per this article in Nature, a new and important key for understanding how genomes work. Curious about how it can be applied? Here’s a fun quiz from the folks at Wired magazine, Can You Tell These Real CRISPR Projects from the Fake Ones?

Wonder what it might be like to enjoy the rat race? Researchers do an awful lot of things to our rodent friends for the sake of science, but did you know that they actually enjoy some of them? The rodents, that is, not the scientists. Here’s a fun piece from the blogger, GrrlScientist,  Wild Mice Actually Enjoy Running on Exercise Wheels.

One day, cephalopods will rule the world? Do you doubt me? Here’s proof.

Data and Data Visualization

I may have shared this in a previous post, but even if so, it’s worth sharing again – Flowing Data’s 10 Best Data Visualization Projects of 2015. You can be both wowed and inspired by reviewing them.

It goes without saying that librarians are hardly the only professional group retooling to adapt to a data-driven, data-overflowing world. Journalism has also become a profession that looks very different from what it did just a few short years ago. Journalist Geoff McGhee’s video report, Journalism in the Age of Data, is a great piece that chronicles and explores how news rooms are changing and adapting to be able to effectively use data to tell stories.

Making data available to users in every conceivable (and even inconceivable) means is key, argues Mac Bryla in his piece for Tableau’s blog, Data Diaries: Culture of Innovation Starts with Self-Reliant People. Here’s a snippet:

What True Self-Reliance Looks Like

Self-reliance is built in part on people’s ability to answer their own questions, which is closely related to the concept of self-service analytic, especially in today’s data-driven age.

For many, the idea of self-service business intelligence, where IT opens up a small menu of capabilities for employees, has not yet produced its promised benefits despite having been around for a few years. It is clearly an improvement on the traditional, IT-run report factory, but it is still too limiting to satisfy people’s ever-growing appetite for information.

So far, self-service BI is more like IKEA’s approach to DIY furniture-making. While it allows us to build our own furniture, it’s limited by factory-manufactured building blocks. As a result, we all end up with the same results despite the process being self-service.

This is not enough when it comes to fostering self-reliance, autonomy, and innovation.

An alternative approach is to give curiosity-driven users a new generation of tools, which will enable them to explore their data and answer their own questions on their own schedules.

I loved the Do-It-Yourself IKEA-approach metaphor.

I’ve been reading Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic’s book, Storytelling with Data: A data visualization guide for business professionals. It’s succinct and straightforward style is terrific. It’s also filled with many excellent examples and step-by-step exercises, all using Excel. Her blog of the same name is also worth checking out. You might note that she’s on a bit of a hiatus after welcoming a new baby to her family, but there’s plenty of archived info worth perusing.

Along the same lines, you may also want to read Scott Berinato’s article in the June edition of Harvard Business Review entitled, Visualizations that Really Work.

For a fantastic, easy-reading article that uses a bunch of data to explain really well how and why complex problems like affordable housing are so complex, read Michael Anderson’s, A guy just transcribed 30 years of for-rent ads. Here’s what it taught us about housing prices. It’s well-worth remembering in this time of inflated promises by political campaigns of all stripes. (My biased, editorial comment there.)

Track the pulse of the US presidential race via Twitter. Just for fun.

Good Reads

One of the best articles I read this month was an inaugural essay for the brand new Journal of Design and Science (JoDS) out of MIT. I admit that I had to read it a few times through and consult a few outside resources to fully understand it, but once I got it,  I got it! Age of Entanglement, by Neri Oxman, proposes a very interesting theory to explain how the dissolution of clear boundaries between disciplines and specialties breeds (and thus, needs) new means of understanding how people work, think, and create both individually and together. And the Krebs Cycle of Creativity is brilliant!

03.25.16-Oxman-Krebs

Source: Oxman, N. (2016) Krebs Cycle of Creativity (KCC). In: Ito, J. Design and Science.

If you’re ever looking for good, online writing related to science, ScienceBlogs is a nice, one-stop site for finding blogs pertaining to all types of disciplines, including Information Science

A future read will be the Journal of New Librarianship a brand new, open source journal to promote innovative practices in librarianship. They’re seeking submissions, editors, and reviewers. I know I’m planning on contributing in the future. How about you?

Cool Tools

Benchmarking with SciVal in Scholarly Communication and Research Services is a great article by my friend and colleague, Rebecca Reznik-Zellen, Lamar Soutter Library, UMass Medical School. Bibliographic metrics have long been used to measure academic reach and impact, and many tools are coming online to improve and expand this method. SciVal, from Elsevier, is but one of them. Whether you have access to it or not, Rebecca’s piece gives a nice overview of how offering research impact, i.e. the measurement of it, as a scholarly communications and/or research service is right in line with the mission of any academic research library.

Do you wonder how people make those short animated GIFs that appear all over social media today? GifSoup is one way. Here’s a quick tutorial.

Here’s a quick and easy way to clear up some memory in your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. And learn from my mistake – choose a single movie, NOT a bundle. I did the latter and am now stuck with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Ugh! I’ll never watch them.

I missed attending MLA in Toronto this month, but followed along with all of the tweeters using the #mlanet2016 hashtag. Thank you so much to those who kept us stray folk in the know. One of the best sessions I followed was an early morning one devoted to new text mining tools. So far, I’ve had the chance to play with Voyant Tools. It’s simple to use, easy to understand, and is a wonderful addition to the toolkit.

Virtual Knick Knacks

Finally, a few things just for fun:

  • Good Night, Sweet Prince – Another musical and artistic genius left us recently. This isn’t necessarily a “fun” piece, but it’s a beautiful article by Dave Ziren for The Nation. For those of us my age, Prince was our David Bowie. His music lives on, though his fans will miss him forever.
  • Last month, the Smithsonian online magazine published some hidden gems by the reclusive, Harper Lee. Great stuff!
  • Mother Goose Seeks Out Police to Rescue Baby. Who doesn’t love these stories in spring? And do note how it was the female police officer who took direct action. The male officer was too scared. Maternal instincts taking over? I think so.
  • Hilda Bastian is a scientist and editor at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the National Institutes of Health. She also draws cartoons about science. The National Library of Medicine produced a nice interview with her here.
  • If you happen to be a person who recalls with fondness those Saturday evenings watching slide shows and home movies, you might really enjoy the Home Movie Registry. Yes. It exists. Thank you interwebs.

That’s all for today and, sadly, all I shared for the month of May. I’m sorry I didn’t write more. I’ll try and do better in June.

 

#OscarSoBlackAndWhite

29 Jan

To hone my data visualization and information graphics chops, I’ve been seeking out and collecting data on topics of interest to me. Here’s one that bugs me around this time every year.

Oscar So Black and White

A Picture CAN Tell a Dozen Tables’ Worth of Data

10 Dec

[The following was originally written for the UMCCTS December Newsletter.]

When it comes to summarizing and sharing information with an audience, one important thing to remember is the audience itself. It’s a pretty simple concept, yet too often forgotten or dismissed when we’re preparing a talk, an article, a policy statement, patient education materials, and the myriad of other containers into which we fit our message.

Most recently, I’ve been working to pull together sections for the Final Progress Report for our initial Clinical and Translational Science Award. This is not my first time writing such a report and as has been the case in the past, we follow a template that goes something like:

Overall Objectives and Goals > Aims > Accomplishments Associated with Each Aim > Milestones Reached for the Same > Challenges Faced > Future Plans

These reports are lengthy and dry, filled with lots of bullet points and tables and numbers. I’m not privy to how these reports are read at NIH, but I imagine that the format fits how they are reviewed and makes it easier for funders to see a bigger picture across similar awards. Funders and reviewers are the audience, thus we present our information to them in the way they’re accustomed – the way that they understand.

Taking a break from all of the writing, I decided to turn one of the bigger tables of information I’ve received into something for a different audience. Sarah Rulnick, MPH, Project Manager for the Conquering Diseases Project, recently compiled some information regarding the work of the Biorepository and Volunteer Database. These are both integral pieces in the UMCCTS efforts to support clinical trials. I read through the narrative portions of Sarah’s summary and took in the full-page table giving yearly counts of things such as the number of patients consented for the biorepository, MiCARD searches performed, outreach events organized, and the like.

I started to think about a way that I could summarize this information for both people who have already enrolled in the Volunteer Database and those who might potentially do so, if they only understood a bit more about the importance of participation. It’s an audience that Sarah and her colleagues are charged to reach. I pulled out the data points that I thought best addressed this goal. I also brainstormed what came to my mind when I thought about conquering something. What I ultimately came up with is this:

Conquering Diseases

Coincidentally, right in the middle of writing this newsletter piece, I watched a 20-minute “Coffee Break” webinar from the American Evaluation Association. I hadn’t connected the webinar with this piece, but they certainly appear to be related. The webinar was entitled, “How to Develop Visual Summaries and Inforgraphics from Your Evaluation Findings,” and presented by Elissa Schloesser, a graphic designer and visual communicator based in Minneapolis. She, too, talked about knowing your audience and she offered an excellent example of how she prepared two very different materials for two groups; both from the same report. I felt I was on track with my message here.

Elissa has some other nice examples on her My Visual Voice. If you’re thinking of communicating some of your work visually, they might inspire you.