Tag Archives: Special Libraries Association

Data Viz Sing-Along!

13 Sep

I was invited to give an 8-minute lightning talk at this evening’s SLA New England event in Boston called, Organizing Our Digital World. My topic is data visualization. Easy, right? Normally, yes, but in this case I have to give a talk on data visualization without the use of any visuals! I love a good challenge and this was just that. I mulled for weeks over how I might pull this off until it finally came to me, Schoolhouse Rock! Remember those? I loved them as a kid. I still know many by heart. And so I thought, if I can still remember conjunctions thanks to Conjunction Junction, maybe folks will be able to remember a few things about choosing the right chart for presenting data if I put the rules into a song.

Well, per my usual, my song became lengthy and wordy and without a good hook like, “Conjunction Junction, what’s your function…” but I still think it will work for tonight. Now I just need 2 minutes of fill to get to the 8-minute mark!

A huge credit for the basis of this song goes to Stephanie Evergreen. Her book, Effective Data Visualization, is a constant companion in my work and what I know of choosing the right charts, I learned from her books, tutorials, blog posts, and more. If you need some expert advice in this area, do seek her out.

So here’s the song (truly, a one-shot practice filmed in my studio last night). You’ll find the lyrics below. Feel free to sing along!

Data Viz: A Lesson in Verse
Sally Gore

I was spending time looking at some data
Figuring out the story it could tell.
Taking time studying the data
Lots of rows and columns in Excel.
I needed to get a report to my boss,
I needed to get it to her quick.
And though I wasn’t shooting for form over function
I still wanted to make it something slick.

I took a moment, pulled some books from my shelf.
Seeking out some expert advice.
Two books by Stephanie Evergreen,
I think they’re worth much more than their price.
I flipped to the page that talks about the science,
The work of Cleveland and McGill
Turns out that humans aren’t innate at reading data
And choosing the right charts takes some skill.

One of the books has a “Chart Chooser Cheat Sheet”
That I find an awful handy tool.
Plus a deck of “Chart Chooser” cards
Together they help me learn the rules.
So when I was invited to give this talk
Without the use of any picture cues
I thought I’d try and turn the rules into song
To quickly teach them all to you.

So here we go …

When you’ve got a single number
That you’re trying to convey
A single number of great importance,
The simple, single thing the numbers say.
The easiest means to get that thought across,
Is forget about charts of any kind,
Just write that number big and loud on the page
There’s no need to clutter people’s minds.

Other times you need to describe,
How two numbers are alike or not.
Bars side-by-side or back-to-back,
Try these or else a dot plot.
If you’ve got one group in particular
That changes while the others stay the same
Consider how a slopegraph can easily show
The difference that you’re trying to claim.

Many times you’ll find you’ve got a benchmark
And the story’s all about meeting goals.
Often times we measure performance
It’s important when we’re talking bankrolls.
A benchmark line across a line of columns
Will easily get the point across.
So will a bullet chart or indicator dots,
Pick and choose from these for the boss.

Now you know we LOVE to give surveys,
So what the survey says, we’ll need to show.
For this task there are lots of choices
Involving bars stacked up in a row.
Stacked or diverging, aggregated, too,
Or a bunch of small multiples across the top.
And if you get tired of plain old bars,
Show the same thing with a lollipop.

What about when there are parts of a whole,
Like a bunch of demographics of a group?
It’s easy to default to that famous old pie chart
But listen up folks, here’s the scoop.
Pie charts are old, pie charts are boring
But most they’re often difficult to read
Try a histogram, a tree map, a stacked bar instead
Or perhaps no visual is what you need.

Sometimes you’ve got some data that shows
How things changed over time.
It’s really pretty common, we see it quite a lot,
Did our numbers shrink or did they climb?
Well a few chart types that I sung about already
In this case will also do the trick
Think line graph, a slope graph, a dot plot, too,
Or a deviation bar’s a perfect pick.

Now you might be asking, “How about a scatterplot?”
I learned of those in Stats 101.”
And I must admit finding patterns in a scatter
Really can be a lot of fun.
A bunch of points plotted ‘cross an “X” and a “Y”
Show relationships between “A” and “B” –
When “A” does this, “B” does that,
And is there any trend that you can see?

Sometimes your data isn’t numbers at all,
But rather lots of words said or wrote.
Qualitative methods produce the kind of data,
Where the words give the meaning to take note.
Callouts are useful, heat maps can help,
Or you can make a cloud filled with words.
Each of these is handy, each of these works,
And your meaning won’t get lost on numbers nerds.

So that’s a few tips, I hope you find helpful
When you think about the story you can tell
As you’re sitting there staring at a spreadsheet of data
And all you really want to do is yell.
Start at step one, learn the different charts
And when and how and where they work best.
Once you’ve conquered that you just need to learn to make them
Step-by-step, you’ll have passed the test.

And no one will sit there staring at your PowerPoint slide or your report or your article wondering, “What the heck does this mean?!

Miller’s Crossing (SLA 2017)

27 Jun

I SURVIVED

Hot on the heels (pun intended) of my post about the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association yesterday, I offer up some thoughts and sketchnotes on my time at the annual meeting of the Special Libraries Association that took place last week in Phoenix. Did you see the news from Phoenix last week? If not, well, it was hot. Really hot. But the conference was fantastic! Here’s why…

This was my very first time attending SLA and I have to say that I was impressed beyond impressed! The keynote speakers were inspiring, the sessions chocked full of useful takeaways, the colleagues that I met interesting and nice, the schedule (and the program, overall) was really creative, and my own presentation … it went pretty darned well, if I do say so myself. Kudos to the conference planning committee, the SLA staff, and the organization’s leadership for putting together a stellar event.

I took more notes than I’m going to share here, but I want to highlight a couple of sessions that kicked off the event for me and really set the tone for what I could and would expect over the few days. The very first session that I attended was a talk by the local author, Susan Cummins Miller, titled “The Curious Case of a Geologist-Turned-Crime Writer.” It was Sunday morning and my internal clock was still several hours off after traveling cross-country the day before, so honestly, it was that title that drew me to the lecture. It was just too interesting to pass up. What I received from attending was an incredibly personable – and to me, incredibly relatable – story about a person with many interests and the winding career path that often accompanies such. “The Life History of a Writer,” is the framework Miller used to tell her story, offering up a lot of tips and inspiration along the way. It was the perfect start to the morning.

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Following Susan Cummins Miller’s talk, I made my way to the first general session and the keynote presentation by Lulu Miller, a journalist and writer and the co-host of the NPR podcast, Invisibilia. [Tangent: I titled this post, “Miller’s Crossing” because of the shared surname of the two speakers and because that reminded me of the title of an excellent movie. An early Coen brothers’ film. Seek it out.] I will share at the get-go that I have attended LOTS of professional conferences in my years as a librarian and I have heard a number of great speakers over this time, but Lulu Miller’s talk may well be the BEST that I’ve heard to date. It also serves as the perfect model for anyone outside of the library profession who gets invited to deliver one of these talks. Why? Because she prepared it entirely for us, the audience. It was obvious from the very beginning. It wasn’t a talk that she had tucked away to be tailored to any audience. Nope. It was, start-to-finish, a message put together with no other group but a group of special librarians in mind.

For me, the key to the talk hinged upon the question, “What if you (meaning a bunch of research librarians) did your job worse?” Put another way, in our rush to answer a patron’s request, is it possible that what we end up doing is confirm their biases? We point them to what they are looking for, not necessarily what they need to find. What would happen if we perhaps sent them down a path that they didn’t expect to go? What might they find then? What unexpected discoveries might be uncovered?

To illustrate the point of these questions, Miller told an engaging story of how just such an experience led her to some discoveries, some history, and an amazing mystery that she’d never have encountered had she not been led astray from her own biases. She talked about how many people and how many sources and how much dumb luck (the latter being a bit of me editorializing) it generally takes to get to the truth and how at every turn in the process of truth-seeking, our biases can get in the way. Our task, then, as information professionals, is to help people overcome their biases and we do so, first, by changing some of our own behaviors. (You can see her instructions in my notes below.)

“Disobey!” was her commandment to the crowd. Disobey those “tried and true” information professional rules of searching and seeking and delivering, and see what happens.  You never know where it may lead and the discoveries perhaps uncovered.

I’ve not stopped thinking about this talk since I heard it – a sure sign that it was worth hearing the first time!

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