Data Viz Thoughts .|: Joshua Smith Interview & Soha Elghany has our #VOTW
A Tableau-centric weekly blog about the viz making process, #datafam member interviews, #DataVizThoughts Viz of the Week + entertainment for introverts (consisting of a music morsel & a binge bite).
Joshua Smith recently competed in and won the IronViz championship in Las Vegas (with Hesham Eissa). I wanted to give him a month or so to let the event sink in + didn’t want to harass him with a time request now (because there has to be so many demands on his time right now). He was very generous with his time and was willing to interview ASAP.
Joshua’s words shared here and his recent blog post reveal genuine humbleness, struggles, and strong internal motivational force to best hone & display his expert application of story + data + art. (1)
Adam Mico (AM): How has your degree in Psychology (with a research distinction) and economics (with a behavioral focus) helped your approach to data visualization?
Joshua Smith (JS): The psychology and economics are heavily overlapped. In fact, today a similar pattern of courses and research might get one a degree called “Decision Science”, and often I tell people that’s what my degree is in. I spent very little time studying the more stereotypical elements of psychology or economics, and more time in the overlap in Judgement and Decision Making, Quantitative Psychology, Experimental Economics, and the like.
These sorts of courses have strong implications for the way we consume and make decisions using data. Decision architecture is one practical implication in which the order and arrangement in which we are presented decisions can impact which decision we make — regardless of the actual decision or information being presented. We spent a lot of time studying how we interpret and act on uncertainty and probability, and how certain phrasings can help people better understand probability (instead of 75%, say 3 out of 4). We spent a lot of time with the idea of Systems 1 and 2 processing, and the classes of heuristics and biases that lead us to irrational decision making. (2)
There were many more topics, but these are the most applicable to data visualization because of their critical ramifications for how we present data — from the arrangement and organization of the dashboard to the design elements we use to emphasize particular KPIs to the phrasing of text we use.
For those interested in learning more, I’d recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, any of the books by Dan Ariely, the Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, Rational Choice in an Uncertain World by Dawes and Hastie, and a perusal of behavioraleconomics.com which lists a number of resources based on your interests.
AM: Please explain your professional work life before data visualization and analytics because it appears to have been quite a journey.
JS: Buckle up — my common warning sign for the crazy journey that brought me here. My undergraduate focus in decision science, combined with a bit of academic over-eagerness, left me burnt out on anything with math or science. There was a pivotal moment in the first day of my senior year, watching a professor write regression models on a white board, when I asked myself “Is this what life is really about?”. I literally walked out, dropped all my courses, and signed up for art courses: creative writing and poetry, folklore, photography, dance, and literature. When I graduated, I decided to go to graduate school for folklore and creative writing. I spent a summer interning as a minister to build my resume and portfolio, even publishing a folkloristic study on Hookah Smoking in a textbook and my first poem.
I got into graduate school and loved the courses, but about halfway through the second semester I had another pivotal moment. While the material was engaging, my wife and I had struggled to find any sort of community or belonging. She’d taken a job managing a coffee shop, and I spent all my time studying. We didn’t really have friends. Even though I was in graduate school, neither of us felt like we were making career progress.
So, all of those things in conjunction with some of my health issues flaring up, we left. I then had a two year period of my life that I now refer to as “the great wandering”. I bounced from job to job, searching for a real passion. I was a barista, I worked for the Lego Store, I managed a recycling warehouse…
Eventually, my brother-in-law told me that I might like working in “Business Intelligence” at a consulting firm, ICC. The entire thing sounded so prestigious and mysterious! I had to teach myself SQL. At the time, I barely knew anything beyond basic data entry in Excel. I spent a couple weekends on SQLzoo and managed to pass the test and got hired. ICC ran me through a “BI bootcamp” for six weeks, and then started me on an ETL assignment. I eventually got placed on a reporting role using Business Objects, and then a QlikView data visualization role. I had been taking data science and R courses online, and eventually stepped into the data science department and, after one of my bosses was promoted, stepped into a leadership role directing the Data Visualization practice at ICC, while also serving as the primary data storyteller for the data science team.
It’s a very roundabout path into data visualization and analytics, but I’ve found ways that nearly everything in my weird background helps create a unique perspective on data visualization.
AM: It looks like your 1st professional data visualization role began with Information Control Company. How did that work experience happen and how did that kickstart your passion for data visualization?
JS: When I worked at ICC, my data visualization assignments paired me with people from the user experience team. My projects were structured in a back and forth. Eventually, after working closely with them over years, I’d learned enough to bring my own UX perspective to data visualization, with a design process that was much more user focused and researched focused than technology focused. This allowed my background in decision science and the creative arts to really thrive. Decision science helped me understand how people consume data and make decisions, and enabled me to create Information Architectures that were intuitive and aligned with decision architectures. The creative arts, especially writing (3), enabled me to infer the users’ story, and to design in such a way that the user could see how the data was part of their story. I started seeing data less from a Business Intelligence perspective, and more as a tool that enabled the user, as the protagonist of their own story, to overcome their own professional and personal conflicts. Once this became my view of the field, data visualization and analytics came to life.
AM: What inspired you to create a Tableau Public account and your 1st viz, (North American Bird Sightings)? (4)
JS: We had just bought a house, and I wanted a way to assess what kinds of bird seed I should put out. What birds were common — and what were the less common birds I might be able to attract? I found some data and created a sort of app I could use. Tableau Public was my way of making that consistently accessible, and I even made a mobile version so that I could access it when I travel to know what birds I should be looking for. At the time, I wasn’t in the community, so I didn’t have anyone to share it with — but, you can see two new versions of it on Tableau Public with some of the new spatial functionality available in 2019.2 and 2019.3.
AM: From that point, you continued to consistently make Tableau Public vizzes, but did not join the Twitter community for about a year. How did you learn about the Tableau Twitter community?
I left ICC to join a new company, Front Health. When I was at ICC, we were partners with all the major viz tools in the Gartner Magic Quadrant.
Because I was the lead of the data visualization practice, I was hesitant to jump too far into one community. However, without multiple partnerships, I felt free to get more involved. I presented at the Columbus Tableau User Group and met Bridget Cogley (@WindsCogley), and she recommended I join the community. While I detest social media, I made the jump into Twitter — and I’ve loved getting to know everyone and I only regret not having done it sooner.
AM: How has the community changed your approach to visualizing data?
JS: Skills-wise, I’ve learned a ton of technological / Tableau tricks.
Regarding the more theoretical / strategic approach, or the “big picture”, I’d already developed a strong perspective from years of consulting and leadership in the data visualization space. However, I’d never really done it for “fun”. While the community didn’t necessarily directly change my perspective, they refined it and my growth much faster. I now had a group of people to share, practice, and discuss data visualization — meaning my unique perspectives more quickly matured, the quality of my work increased more rapidly, and I was constantly exposed to new ideas, and new ways of doing things. Being in constant conversation has given me the opportunity to see which of my ideas are similar to others, and which of mine are unique — allowing me to focus my growth on the ways I can uniquely contribute to the community and my clients/ stakeholders.
AM: Switching gears, before winning the IronViz feeder in 2019 for Agriculture, did you participate in IronViz feeder competitions before and if so, what was your highest placement?
JS: Prior to IronViz 2019, I’d never competed in any feeders!
AM: Were you prepared to win the IronViz feeder?
JS: Not at all. I never entered because I never wanted to win. However, I grew up in a rural, agricultural community, and agriculture is a topic I’m passionate about. Nearly everything I see from media and marketing is based off a complete misunderstanding of the way we get our food (here’s looking at you, organics, free range, and anti-antibiotic movements). We’re being misinformed about how crops and livestock are grown and harvested. Sometimes it’s well-intentioned from people that make what seem like reasonable assumptions, but those assumptions fail to recognize the nuances of the industry. Other times that information comes in the form of marketing buzzwords, especially targeted to take advantage of people that really want to make the world a better place. As a result, we end up spending our money on things that aren’t making the world any better, or sometimes make the world even worse.
I entered the Agriculture feeder because it felt like an opportunity to use data to present something that was true to the industry and profession. The data didn’t allow for detailed conclusions or actionable takeaways, but did allow me to demonstrate some of the nuances and complexities of agriculture, especially as it pertains to the social conflict between vegetarians and omnivores. Many of the environmental and economic answers we get are black and white, but the truth is that farming is a highly interdependent industry, so if we impact one thing there will be a multitude of downstream and upstream impacts.
I sought out to most carefully present a truthful exposition, but I didn’t expect it to win. The more I worked, the more I became frustrated at the misinformation. It became a sort of “rage” project that only served to fuel deeper research and conversation. Apparently, that was sufficient criteria to win.
AM: When you found out you won the feeder, you realized that you really had to compete on stage. How were you able to mentally prepare for a live competition in front of thousands of people in person and watching feeds (um, hi)?
JS: My first reaction was an absolute panic, and admittedly I looked for a graceful way to bow out. After the fear had settled, I was really afraid of getting burnt out on Tableau before the competition. I was afraid I’d study and study and study, and then struggle to maintain the energy to practice in the critical days leading up to the IronViz. Bridget Cogley recommended I set Tableau aside and play video games — and that’s exactly what I did. (5) I spent the summer working through games that had been on my play list for years. I also spent a lot of time doing my own gardening, returning to the very “roots” that got me into the mess in the first place. It wasn’t until September that I picked Tableau up again and started practicing and learning new things. I still got a little burnt out, but after just a few days I’m already thinking of exciting new viz ideas — so the burn-out wasn’t too bad.
AM: When discussing your viz, you came off cool as a cucumber and I believe it was a big contributor to the co-championship (with Hesham Eissa). How were you able to take a breath as the 1st contestant to explain your data visualization and answer tough questions after the mad dash of live development and so eloquently?
JS: I have about ten years of public speaking experience, in audiences of up to 3,000 people — so I’m relatively comfortable with crowds. Having said that, none of those opportunities were anything like this.
I rehearsed my talk about 30 times a day leading up to the IronViz. I’d put on my headphones while walking so it looked like I was on the phone (6), and just say it out loud with others around me. I said it ten times when I first woke up, and several times before going to bed. The outline became something so familiar.
It also helps that it was a personal story. The first time I told the story to my wife, we both teared up. I even teared up a bit on stage. That friend I mentioned is very dear to me. We were best men in each other’s weddings. It’s easier to calmly share a story when you’re speaking about someone you know so well. I lost focus of the crowd, and really focused on my friend. (7)
AM: You watched the amazing visualizations of Hesham Eissa (@VizSaiyan) and Lindsey Poulter (@datavizlinds); I believe every entrant had a winning visualization. Hesham was a co-champion, but Lindsey missed out. Please explain why her viz was also a winning strategy/entry. (8)
JS: Lindsey won in her own right. As I’ve been told, she was only 1 point down from Hesham and I. She also easily won in the “Tableau tips and tricks” wow factors — I was so excited to see the crowd go wild, and to see the drop-down filter + bar chart. Her design was so elegant, and had immediate practicality. When they announced a tie, I didn’t even hear my name — I’d assumed they said Hesham and Lindsey. It’s weird to say my imposter syndrome got worse on stage, but seeing my viz next to theirs, I didn’t feel like I even had a right to stand next to them. Honestly, I keep waiting for a Twitter notification to announce that Andy Cotgreave (@acotgreave) misspoke (9), and the winners were actually Hesham and Lindsey! I’m not a super competitive person — I like to see everyone succeed in their own way. The optimal outcome, for me, would have been a three-way tie, each of us winning according to our individual strengths.
AM: I have witnessed your bond on social media with your competitors. When did that bond form and how has it transformed since the competition?
JS: Lindsey and Hesham are incredible people. We began bonding online in Twitter DM’s over some particular challenges in the data. When we met in person I think the stress of the event, the silly rehearsal exercises, and their genuine kindness and brilliance compelled me to know more. They are very easy people to love.
After the competition, I was really excited to get to hang out with them outside of a stressful and inherently competitive event. I just wanted to relax and have a conversation as normal people. It was weird — we didn’t seek each other out after the event, but we just kept naturally gravitating toward each other.
I met a ton of really awesome people during the conference, but getting to spend so much time with Hesham and Lindsey was definitely a highlight, if not my favorite part. I can’t wait to have a sort of reunion next year.
AM: What advice can you share for creating an IronViz feeder entry and preparing yourself for the IronViz if somehow, it’s a winning entry?
JS: Understand the data generating process. Research and research and research until you know how the data you’re looking at came to be. The real insights are there. It’s one thing to find the summary statistics, or to find trends — but if you understand what those statistics or trends are really saying about the universe and how it works, you can unlock the context for a really good story with an impactful, powerful takeaway.
Viz of the Week
The #30DayMapChallenge has produced many stunning maps. This map with its dark background and colorful story really caught my eye. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ask her questions about the viz.
Soha Elghany (SE): Adi is an amazing force to be reckoned with when it comes to her knowledge and understand of spatial analysis, she utilizes GIS and creates these amazing maps on Tableau that have been a source of inspiration for me. When you see someone creating something different and mind-bogglingly amazing you can’t help your brain running like crazy with curiosity and the need to attempt to create something that’s even a measure close to what you admire, it’s how you learn and grow.
AM: How did you come across this data source and were there any other data sources you considered 1st?
SE: I came by the data source by accident I was looking for a data to create a previous visualization. So I found the data source at http://data.gov.uk that suited my needs, in the data source I found spatial data that worked for my own personal target to create a map and develop my spatial skills.
AM: Were there any surprises you found when putting together the viz? If so, please iterate.
SE: It wasn’t really a surprise, but I had to think a lot about how I’m choosing to visualize this topic, especially since it’s highlighting a serious issue that can hit close to home to some people viewing this dashboard.
AM: Do you plan on continuing to work with Mapbox in the future and was the learning curve difficult?
SE: I 100% am planning to continue working with Mapbox and learning more about spatial analytics. It was fun figuring out Mapbox and how to create my own map style and I want to take that skill further, on top of that I want to learn more about spatial analytics and increasing my own personal knowledge in that department. It’s going to be a bit challenging in terms of I don’t work with spatial analytics client side, so I’ll have to brainstorm my own project ideas for this and that is part of the fun and the journey. One of the things that I am struggling with is locating spatial data, so part of the learning curve is also knowing where to look and what to google.
Last week, a Ken Black (@3danim8) that he heard music when they read my blog post (a massive honor) and I thought it was a ‘just me’ thing. Every once in a while, when a great read hits my eyes; I hear music as well. This last happened two days ago.
Like Joshua, Jim was educated, but knew how to craft a wonderful story (Jim instead of data and visual art used melody). ‘I Got A Name’ is what massaged my brain-ears while reading his post (twice). It celebrates self-identity, forging your own path and not letting others hold you back/down while pursuing your dreams and these regards parallel much of what I got out of Joshua’s inspiring + substantial post. (10)
Netflix knows documentaries (and documentary series). Bikram… is no exception. It begins as a showy wealth-flex flick, but then gets shockingly real using 1st person accounts and court testimony about the reported (11) abusive nature re: the man behind the (yoga) guru. Warning: this is not a family documentary.
1) Although his IronViz co-championship was awesome to watch (because of all of the supreme viz writing and storytelling), I suspect this will be a relatively small, but pleasant footnote in Joshua’s journey.
2) I LOVE that this is getting pointed out and Joshua’s articulation!
3) I strongly encourage anyone with the desire to visualize data to also practice writing. Writing will only enhance your ability to share your data visually.
4) Full disclosure: I assumed that ‘A Tale of Two Nations’ was his 1st Tableau Public viz because it’s on the bottom, but Tableau Public sorts by descending order by modification rather than creation.
5) There’s that Bridget Cogley again offering amazing advice…
6) Such a cool tip! I talk to myself all of the time, but know I know I just need to add headphones to ‘appear’ normal. :) Seriously, that’s dedication and not taking a known skill for granted.
6) As I learned last week when presenting at my 1st TUG that speaking about the community and the tool evaporated the jitters (although I was very nervous until my introduction passed). I’ve trained for years, but it’s been since I was a kid that I spoke in front of an audience regarding something I was passionate. Focusing on something you care deeply makes the audience’s eyes less pointed (but engaged) and the sound of your internal voice less piercing.
7) I am not at all diminishing Hesham here. His viz was the most clever from a custom visualization approach, was so much fun to play with & had more depth than I could have imagined from a 20-minute viz.
8) This… :)
9) Although Jim Croce wrote most of his songs, this song was written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. His spirit was so evident here that I consider it his story.
10) As seen here, Bikram refutes the charges he was marked with and feels the Netflix documentary is a character assassination (as he was making disgusting remarks regarding the women who reported him).