An Interview with Seffana Mohamed-Ajaz (Analytics Consultant, The Information Lab)

A weekly blog about the ‘data viz’-making process, #datafam / data analytics member interviews, Viz of the Week & entertainment for introverts (consisting of a music morsel & a binge bite).

This week we feature an interview with the gifted and charismatic Seffana Mohamed-Ajaz (@SeffanaAjaz) + JR Copreros (@jrcopreros) has our Viz of the Week!

Feature Interview

Credit: Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz

Priya Padham (PP): When did you begin working with data visualization?

Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz (SMA): I first began working with data visualisation when I joined The Data School, which is part of The Information Lab (TIL), back in December 2018.

PP: Regarding The Data School… (1)

  • How did you find out about The Data School?
  • How long have you been part of it?
  • How has it helped you?

SMA: I found out about The Data School completely by accident. I was a Systems Engineering graduate fresh out of the University of Warwick and was looking for a graduate scheme. I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer and opted to go into the consulting path without really knowing what a consultant even was (a classic STEM graduate move!) — I was searching online for graduate consulting roles in London that needed little-to-no experience, since I didn’t have much experience to offer being a recent grad, and The Data School was right at the top of the search result. The application (build a viz of your choosing) seemed way more engaging than the awful aptitude tests that corporate companies dish out. I enjoyed the process since it was more personal and gave me a great sense of creative freedom. It was during this time that I created my first ever viz. Somehow I got in and joined DS12 (12th cohort) in December 2018.

How has it helped me? Well, The Data School has helped me immensely! I owe a lot of my personal and professional growth to everyone at TIL. It’d be a gross understatement to say that the opportunities are boundless there. In just over a year, I was able to go to TC19 in Vegas, lead and found the Canary Wharf Tableau & Alteryx user group, expand my network and much more! All of which because of the wealth of support and opportunities at TIL.

Credit: Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz

PP: What prompted you to join the analytics (social media) community?

SMA: I joined the analytics community on social media when I joined The Data School. In fact, I made my Twitter account on my first day whilst Craig was kitting us up. I never had an interest in Twitter before, I previously assumed it was just a platform for celebrities and politicians. Andy encourages us to share any work or blogs we publish, using Tableau and Alteryx, on Twitter to reach a wider audience who can learn from what we do, or provide feedback.

PP: What are tips for people who are just starting?

SMA: If there is anyone new who would like to get into data visualisation using Tableau then the first tip would definitely be to use a dataset that is interesting to you! When I was applying to join DS12, data visualisation was totally foreign to me, let alone Tableau as a product. Learning the tool and getting what data visualisation is all about will be much easier if you use data that you’re more familiar with. I love films and TV, so it was only natural that I had used a “The Academy Awards” dataset. I’m certain I’d have lost interest in learning Tableau or data visualisation if I had used something that didn’t appeal to me data-wise. Once you start getting comfortable with Tableau, venture into the #MakeoverMonday initiative.

If people are new to Alteryx and would like to learn how to improve, then I highly encourage them to do the Alteryx Weekly Challenges. Aside from working on personal projects, the weekly challenges are one of the best ways to learn and improve your Alteryx skills. It’s great because everyone shares the solutions, and it’s awesome unpicking how other people solve the same problem each week.

PP: What resources helped you as you were working on design?

SMA: My primary resource would have to be Tableau Public and viewing other people’s work. My MCU and Hans Zimmer vizzes were both inspired by Brian’s Tableau project work during training. He made both of the vizzes I was inspired by in a couple of hours for DS projects, and I was completely taken aback by his quick imagination to come up with Andy’s face in R, and using Ben MossPlot Network macro in Alteryx to build a network with SWAPI.

My favourite go-to person for vizspiration would have to be my friend and colleague, Ellen, who has one of the most beautiful portfolios when it comes to visualising data. She doesn’t compromise style over substance, and yet she still finds a way to make the data engaging without needlessly over complicating things.

I’ve also recently started using Pinterest for the first time for colour palettes. I might start using that for vizspiration.

PP: Did you have mentors and how has that helped?

SMA: Yes, I have a couple of mentors. Peter Silvester is my mentor at The Data School and he’s absolutely great, especially since he, too, was a Data Schooler before joining the Core team at The Information Lab, so he relates to all of the experiences I go through.

Another one of my mentors is Eva Murray who is a Technology Evangelist at Exasol, and co-leads #MakeoverMonday with Charlie Hutcheson. I reached out to Eva when I heard she moved to London and asked to learn about her career experience. We met for coffee and nattered for ages. (2) It was there she asked if she could mentor me, to which I said yes! I owe a lot to Eva, especially since she is the reason why I was able to go to TC19.

There are two others who, unbeknownst to them, I see as unofficial mentors since they have given me a lot of support, guidance and counsel: Emily and Bridget. Emily was incredibly helpful when I kicked off the Canary Wharf Tableau & Alteryx user group, and Bridget my moral compass. (3) I am grateful to know them both.

While he is more so my teacher than my mentor, I do look up to and owe Andy a lot. I enjoy having my catch-ups with him whilst we check off the Talking Statues on our walks. He also loves baking cookies and making guacamole for the Data Schoolers. (Such a grandad!)

Credit: Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz

PP: What music do you listen to while vizzing?

SMA: While I am vizzing I like to listen to film, TV and anime soundtracks. One of my favourite composers would have to be Hans Zimmer. (4) Oh, and obviously love me some lo-fi tunes! I used to listen to the Serial podcast when I was applying for DS12.

Adam Mico (AM): You had a viral data visualization very recently with your Simpsons’ viz. Has that sunk in and how were you able to put that in perspective?

Credit: Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz

SMA: It definitely hasn’t sunk in. I don’t get why nor how it blew up in popularity in such a short space of time since I didn’t spend much time vizzing it. I spent more time gathering the predictions and prepping the data in Alteryx than vizzing it in Tableau, funnily enough. (5) I guess I have to credit Reddit, perhaps.

I was extremely flattered and taken aback when Mike Cisneros showed me the Fast Company article, who I admittedly hadn’t heard of before until that moment. Then someone else pointed me to a CNET article which went through the viz. Then I saw/heard of other articles. I thought it was pretty cool that it reached a German audience, too. It’s all so bizarre and unexpected, but lovely to see that people found it more interesting than I anticipated.

AM: What data visualization had you created that may have not received a lot of attention, but you really like — what made you proud of that viz?

SMA: I’d say the Game of Thrones viz that I published just over a month ago is something that I guess I am proud of. More so because it was my first personal project viz after I took a hiatus following the Hans Zimmer viz. I enjoyed building the coxcombs in Alteryx, exploring new viz styles, using the button feature Kevin told me about and doing a cheeky bit of table calculations. It helped reconnect me back to vizzing outside of work.

Credit: Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz

AM: You have been an advocate for tool diversity and inclusion in tech. It takes a ton of courage to be a strong voice. What has helped you find that voice and what would you like to see in the future?

SMA: Ah… to be honest, I wouldn’t say anything, in particular, has helped me find that voice let alone be “a strong” one. I think I more so realised that a lot of people within the analytics community, particularly the Tableau community, use other tools as well — not just Tableau. For example, I use both Tableau and Alteryx in my work, and make sure that I use both tools in my personal projects so that I can spend time progressing in both tools in my free time. I realise that while I love vizzing in Tableau, it can be limited by how clean or messy the data is. I don’t like resorting to needless hacky, or manual, solutions if I have messy data. This is where I like using Alteryx to clean it and build things like Network charts and various other cool stuff that can’t easily (or simply can’t be) done in Tableau; however, I do appreciate that not everyone has Alteryx, but there are programming languages like R and Python that can help.

It would be really awesome to see people be more tool agnostic, if possible, and venture into new things and break out of their comfort zone.

Credit: Seffana Mohamed — Ajaz

I’ve recently gone out of my comfort zone to build an app in Alteryx for Tableau users to generate colour palettes that would be ready to put into their Preferences.tps file. This was in response to my frustration of manually needing to copy hex codes into the .tps file and not having an easy way of getting sequential palettes online. I certainly learned a ton from doing that personal project.

AM: Please share a guilty pleasure or fun fact that many readers may not know about you?

SMA: I love watching anime in English dub. Yep, I’m one of those people. #sorrynotsorry 🤷‍♀️

Viz of the Week

Credit: JR Copreros — ‘Let’s Get Digital’

Last week there were so many memorable vizzes published on Tableau Public, but I appreciated the design and application of this one the most. JR is relatively new to the Tableau community scene but has made a wonderful splash with his aesthetically pleasing charting & whitespace application joined by smart dash of analytics. The added bonus of applying a ‘drill-down’ effect by dissecting the top chart below was as creative as it was breathtaking. (6)

I asked JR about this viz and he shared…

As a lover of music, this week’s Makeover Monday topic and the dataset was one that I was super excited to dive into. A goal guiding my design approach lately has been exploring how I can help my audience not only understand the data visually but to also better experience it in order to hopefully deepen the impact and reach of the story I’m trying to tell. I can’t quite remember the source of the quote but it went something like this: “in order for a design to be more engaging, it helps to utilise more than one visual cue and/or cognitive trigger “.

For the core design concept, I sought inspiration online for some minimalistic art/design related to music/sound and came across the depiction of “soundwaves” quite a bit. I took this idea further and thought that instead of just a static image, it would be a good opportunity to use some animation, given the notion that people typically interpret music/sound as something fluid — And that’s how I landed on displaying the data as an animated soundwave over time as the main element. Not only did I feel that this was a unique and engaging way to tell the story of the rise and fall of music sales, but I also felt that it was still quite functional from a data visualization perspective. Lastly, given that I was displaying over eight categories simultaneously in the main chart element, I decided to create small multiples with animations synced to the main visual to improve transparency and facilitate easier comparability between categories over the same time period.

In terms of process, as I’ve learned from some of my information design/data viz role models, I started with a simple wireframe sketch and layout on paper. From there, I went on to build a high-fidelity version of the layout using Figma which I will then import in Tableau as the background for my visual [a technique I first discovered from Judit Bekker’s (@juditbekker) blog]. I also find their dynamic grid function super useful to help map out and space my elements properly. Next, I start to create the text headline and content. Given that it’s a design tool, the options and flexibility when it comes to type and styling, in general, are better compared to Tableau — this helps ensure that any use of non-standard font styles gets integrated as part of the background image so there are no surprises in the event there are some incompatibilities with non-web-safe fonts that sometimes come up when done in Tableau.

Once in Tableau, it all comes down to a matter of building out the sheets and placing them in the designated areas I predetermined beforehand based on the imported background layout from Figma. The soundwave visual is essentially a dual-axis chart, where one of the measures is the inverse of the primary measure, creating this dynamic expanding effect [shout out to Ravi Mistry (@Scribblr_42) for the tutorial]. I’ve been using floating containers a lot recently, and approaching layers in Tableau like how I would approach layers in graphic design tools like Photoshop to create the elements. I feel like this approach unlocks lots of possibilities in terms of creative and bespoke visual combinations from a visual design standpoint.

Check out his new blog where he will be posting details about the data visualization process (image loaded) and share some non-dataviz musings (which may or may not eventually permeate his dataviz journey) at jrcopreros.com.

Music Morsel

Priya’s Bop: This song has a very summery and chilled out vibe, so I’ve been listening to it a lot lately during the UK’s lovely weather! I also recommend checking out “Daydream” which has a similar sound if you like what you hear.

Binge Bite

The trailer is awful, but the show is fun. It includes an all-star cast of familiar faces. In my own head, I’ll pretend this a “The Office” spin-off we didn’t know we needed — the continuation of the Michael Scarn saga (albeit with a production budget and no camera-mugging Jim).

Mico’s Footnotes

1) You gotta love 3-part questions. 😆 — Seriously, Priya’s questions are 🔥!

2) For any non-UK readers, here is the definition for “natter” — don’t be ashamed, I looked it up.

3) I have used Bridget’s powerfully thoughtful brain multiple times as a moral compass as well.

4) This is the point I fell in love with Seffana’s viz work. It was published and shared within the 1st month I was part of the social media community and was gobsmacked by the delightful design and application of other tools in a Tableau viz.

5) That checks out — the data prep should be a longer process than visualizing (especially when gathering and cleaning your own data). You always want to work out any kinks and many calculations in your dataset when possible — this was you can use Tableau to focus primarily on visualizing the data.

6) No, you’re breathtaking. Also, (Let’s Get) Physical rings in my ears as I navigate JR’s viz.

#DataVizThoughts Editing Team

Adam Mico

Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public

Priya Padham

Twitter | LinkedIn | Tableau Public

Keyrus US’ Tableau Evangelist and Tableau Ambassador | Data Leadership Collaborative Advisory Board Member. | Views are my own | Co-Editor: Priya Padham