One of the first persons we met after starting our ‘data visualization endeavour’, back in 2010, was Andy Kirk. Like us, he had launched his blog just a few months earlier and that was something that kind of bounded us immediately. We were all excited with the rise of data visualization as a ‘mainstream’ topic, started to exchange emails and he even was kind enough to invite us for an interview for Visualising Data.
With time, his dedication and hard work made him a reference in the world of data visualization. He’s been a speaker at some of the most important events, writes for respectable sites like O’Reilly Radar, and is frequently asked to share his thoughts by sites, blogs and podcasts.
And the fun is just beginning!
Despite his busy schedule and frequent travelling, Andy has a lot of things in motion for the near future, and he was kind enough to talk with us about those projects, his work and the future of data visualization.
Visual Loop (VL) – First, could you tell us a bit about your background in the data visualization field?
Andy Kirk (AK) – I first discovered the existence of the field at the end of 2006. I was working as an Information Manager at the University of Leeds, with a responsibility for a lot of analysis and presentation of data, and it was quite a serendipitous moment, really. I was browsing around for some examples of a particular chart and came across Stephen Few’s Perceptual Edge website. At school, I was rather unique, in the sense that I was the kid who studied both art and maths, so I’ve always had a passion for these fields separately, but this acted as something of a ‘Eureka!’ moment for me. Soon after I had the opportunity to undertake a Masters research degree and shaped this around a study into Data Visualisation. Thereafter, I started the blog in 2010 to continue immersing myself into the field and this led to the design, consultancy and training opportunities I have since been fortunate to pursue.
VL – Working as trainer in the data visualization field, you must be in touch with people of very different backgrounds, in your workshops. How hard it is to handle that, in order to attend everyone’s expectations?
AK – The different backgrounds of the people I train is perfect, because it brings a richness to the variety of contributions, ideas and interactions that take place during the sessions. Everyone is coming from different perspectives and that means, hopefully, everyone also learns something new, rather than just reinforcing what they already know. My target audience was always to reach this huge new growth area of everyday people now being responsible for data analysis and presentation. Whereas in the past it was something of a fringe/specialist activity, now it is much more in the mainstream and so I wanted to create a training opportunity to give these people a thorough route into the subject. The many cities and countries I am now fortunate to visit means I am seeing subtle cultural differences, but fundamentally these don’t create any hurdles, so long as they are ok being taught in English!
My target audience was always to reach this huge new growth area of everyday people now being responsible for data analysis and presentation. Whereas in the past it was something of a fringe/specialist activity, now it is much more in the mainstream.
VL – You also have to keep an eye for all forms of data visualization, from the ‘poster-infographics’, to the editorial designs in newspapers and magazines, not to mention academic works, technologies and programming languages, among many others. How do you manage to bring all that into your classroom?
AK – Creating an introductory course which covers the rich spectrum of different applications of visualisation and infographic design, not to mention the many different technologies, is quite a challenge. I have tried to conceive a one-day training package which equips delegates with a efficient and effective design methodology that will allow them to apply it to any visualisation design challenge/opportunity, regardless of the technology capabilities, the complexity of the problem, the size of the data, etc. So, hopefully, this session creates a suitably broad intro and inspires people to continue to learn and practice the subject beyond the timeframe of a single day’s course.
VL – Today, Visualising Data is one of the most respected blogs of this field. How demanding has been to maintain a web presence that, ultimately, helps you with your work? And how do you deal with it?
AK – Blogging has been a challenging (and occasionally tiring) commitment, but one which I have found absolutely invaluable. These days, an online presence is vital for any professional, but particularly for subjects around design. A blog acts as your shop window, allows people to see your work, your thoughts, your articles – it is your brand, essentially. For designers, in particular, the chance to showcase your work, but enhance this portfolio with the accompaniment of narratives, sketches and workings, is a really super way to go that bit further and reveal your methods and techniques. A blog will also act as a great learning experience, as it forces you to think carefully about the writing you commit to publishing. The most challenging aspect, however, is the maintenance of a certain editorial perspective and frequency of posting, because you need to keep an up-to-date and focused presence for people to want to follow you and return as captive audience.
These days an online presence is vital for any professional, but particularly for subjects around design. A blog acts as your shop window, allows people to see your work, your thoughts, your articles – it is your brand essentially.
VL – In one of your last posts, you mentioned some new projects in the future ahead. Anything you can add about that ?
AK – Well, yes, I’m working on my first book right now, which I’ll be in position to talk about in more detail sometime in the next few weeks – I’m running a little bit behind right now! It will be a book that complements much of my training course structure and content, providing readers with some useful strategies for creating effective data visualisation solutions. As I said, I will have more details about this soon so watch this space! I’m also looking to enhance my training packages – I will be announcing a new forthcoming schedule of events but am crafting some ideas for creating more advanced training offerings, either for in-person teaching or maybe even video tutorials. Beyond that I’m also looking to find time to give the site a complete re-design as I think it has reached the point where it needs to be giving a fresh coat of paint!
VL – You have tested and collected dozens, or maybe hundreds, of resources and tools, you have been a regular presence in major events, and you’ve met with some of the most influential people in this field. In your perspective, what are the main concerns and challenges for the continuous growth of data-visualization?
AK – I think the main challenges and opportunities surround Education and Research. The field is very much still a young, emerging field, so it is still evolving rapidly and finding its place in the big world. Many people are becoming interested in the subject but, like most of us before now, they won’t have received the benefit of training or education around the subject. This isn’t just professionals, either. We should really be thinking and responding to how we should interject potential teaching into schools and universities, so the next generation is better equipped at this vital discipline.
On the research side, we have yet to discover too many answers . And to many of the questions we have, maybe we never will. But there are increasing numbers and pockets of excellent academics who are pushing the knowledge further, so this will naturally lead to a greater empirical understanding of effective practices. Alongside this, we are seeing some amazing creatives pushing the boundaries of innovative ways in which we can portray data and some fantastic technologists offering new tools for producing visualisations. As things settle down a little bit over the next few years, we will have moved our maturity on to a new level.
We are seeing some amazing creatives pushing the boundaries of innovative ways in which we can portray data and some fantastic technologists offering new tools for producing visualisations.
VL – To close, Andy, do you have any specific thoughts about Brazilian data-visualization?
AK – Brazil’s data visualisation scene is one that really fascinates me. I have always been aware and impressed by the variety and creativity of infographics that I see produced over there and I would love to read, see and hear more about the specific data visualisation developments coming out of Brazil. I am keen – at some point! – to take my courses over to South America and naturally Brazil will be a key location on this journey.
Brazil’s data visualisation scene is one that really fascinates me. I have always been aware and impressed by the variety and creativity of infographics that I see produced over there.
We are truly thankful to Andy for taking his time to answer these questions, and hope he’ll keep up his fascinating work, narrowing the gap between those more experienced in the field and those who are just starting. You can follow Andy’s updates on Visualising Data and on Twitter.