Great year in 2014, looking forward to 2015

Looking back, 2014 was a great year for data visualization in Chicago and our group. The group met 10 times this past year in a mix of workshop and seminars. Group membership grew from 700 to 1,400 members over the year. I wanted to review what we did last year, where we excelled and where we fell short. Even though it was a wonderful year for the group, 2015 is an opportunity to grow and offer even more to those interested in data visualization in the Chicagoland area.

City of Big Data

Given my role in Chicago’s government, the city (the entity of residents, companies, and culture; not just the government) tended to be showcased. The City of Big Data exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation was a grand exhibit of the intersection of urban spaces, data visualization, and data. Computer-based 2-D and 3-D models were featured, and a real-life 3-D projection of data onto a scale replica of downtown Chicago.

Chicago: City of Big Data
Chicago: City of Big Data

The organizers of the exhibit were exploring how data is not a spreadsheet or abstract notion, instead, it surrounds us. Some of this data is public, highlighted by its display on the 3D model. But it’s also private, captured by Facebook activity and streaming music. In all, it surrounds us in the same way it does in the exhibit.

Data Science for Social Good is a relatively new program that puts highly-qualified and trained undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students in Chicago working on research problems to improve society. Many of these fellows were part of the group over the year. This fall, we were able to see some of those projects which are mostly available as open source projects.

It was obvious that Shiny was a popular tool to quickly prototype and build interactive programs and maps for end users. Grand visualizations were not a primary outcome of those projects, but because of the operational nature of these systems, clear, concise visualizations and maps were rolled out. While visualization is often associated with impressive, large displays, some of the most crucial visualizations follow good practices on charts and maps, enabling exploration through advance filtering. While grand visualizations are the most impressive, the most important visualizations are well-executed visualization of maps and simple graphs.

Importance in design

One of my favorite meetup concepts in 2014 was exploring how design choices leads to a different user experience. This past April, Heather Billings of Chicago Tribune and Derek Eder and Erik Van Zanten of DataMade shared how they visualized the crime data located on the City’s open data portal. It’s a popular dataset from the number of rows (over 5 million) and the pertinent nature of the topic. There seems to be hundreds of analysis and graphs of the data, but the dataset is only 22 variables (columns)–how can the same data look so different?


Each one of the designers took a different approach to visualizing crime data. Chicago Tribune focused on crime in the neighborhood. Derek was candide in admitting that the project was an exploration and learning project as an intentional visualization. Erik demonstrated a tool that allowed people to define their own area of interest. Each project used the exact same data source, but the design and visualization choice led to different user experiences and outcomes.

The city is often the subject of research, an easy topic since it’s a topic that literally surrounds us every day. The newly launched bike-share program led to the DIVVY Data Challenge was quite successful. Similar to crime data, there were a number of drastically different designs based on the same fundamental data, so how different of a design and experience yields from the same data? In this case, there were 99 submissions, all with their own design.

Viva Voronoi!
Viva Voronoi!

We looked at Divvy Spokes, a chord diagram showing neighborhood-to-neighborhood connections by Shaun Jacobsen; thorough statistical analysis by Drew DePriest on ride patterns and his struggle with seemingly messy data; custom dashboard (with crossfiltering!) by Michael Freeman; and learned Voronoi tiles from Gabe Gaster on his map. Additional “show and tell” presentations by KK shows the usefulness and ease of Tableau and–in one of the most amusing apps–find your match on DIVVY with Serendivvity. The same dataset was literally ranging from a dashboard to a dating site. Ultimately, the design and visualization choices leads to an entirely different experience.


We were treated to nationally renowned data visualization experts. Alberto Cairo previewed his upcoming book and his perspective on the role and epistemology of data visualization. Kaiser Fung, the embodiment of an art critic turned data visualization aficionado, reviewed the best and worst charts–and what makes a good chart, good. Both Alberto and Kaiser, leading speakers in this area, were able to cap off a productive year with outstanding talks.

Review of 2014 goals

Early in 2014, I noted three ways to facilitate a robust meetup group: (1) seminars, (2) teach & learn (workshops), and (3) show & tell. Seminars were a strong part of the year. Visits by Alberto Cairo and Kaiser Fung were enlightening. Generally, we were able to hear from a speaker almost every month. Seminars are a clear staple of this group and will continue to be in the future.

D3 Workshop at Critical Mass
D3 Workshop at Critical Mass

The show & tell sessions were also repeated throughout the year. The DIVVY meetup was particularly wonderful as some great data visualizations were presented during very short presentations. It was successful enough this year where I aim to deliver more of these opportunities in the future.

Sadly, this puttered out throughout the year and I do not think we achieved our mission of providing workshops and conducting adequate hands-on training. We started strong with workshops on D3 (many thanks to Paul Katsen for a wonderful job!), but scheduling started to interfere. We are going to renew our efforts to offer workshops in 2015.

Looking forward to 2015

We will continue to offer the three areas of focus–seminars, workshops, and show & tell–from 2014. I hope to improve the number of workshops that can be provided to the Chicago community. But, in addition, we will take the opportunity to improve upon the past year. Thus, the next year will include new focuses that weren’t covered in 2014.

Data visualization is frequently embodied by business intelligence tools, used by large and small organizations. We will be spending some time this year focusing on business intelligence platforms. There is an unfortunate vacuum in the Chicago community around BI platform awareness.

Our first meetup (TBA) will discuss the Tableau platform. As we learned from the Data Science for Social Good group, some of the best data visualization is good execution of basic graphs. The rise of “data exploration” platforms have focused more on visualization and discovery than automating or “pixel-perfect” reports. We will introduce these platforms and discuss the pros and cons of these tools.

Data visualization is also establishing itself as a profession. Dedicated data visualization-ists(?) are being sought on job boards. Thus, we will be more considerate on making a connection between employers and potential employees. Late in the year, we introduced an opportunity for employers to note they were hiring. We will continue that practice. Likewise, we will increase the offerings for serious professional development in the group.

These lists are never exhaustive, but is a start of a plan for 2015. I am interested to hear your feedback through this blog, @ChicagoDataVis, chicagodataviz@gmail,com, and at the events.

Profile: Datascope Analytics

Datascope Analytics is a data analytics and visualization agency in Chicago. Established in 2009 by Mike Stringer and Dean Malmgren—two PhD students in the lab of Luis Amaral, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University. Mike and Dean were investigating large communication networks and scientific databases for information to support the lab’s research. Their realization that they actually enjoyed the data analysis, coupled with the growing demand for these skills, eventually led them to start Datascope Analytics.

I sat down with Dean Malmgren and discussed Datascope Analytics and the Chicago data visualization community in preparation for his presentation at the CDVG meeting on August 15. The notes from our conversation are posted here. He told me he is still a teacher at heart. This is evident by his passion for discussing data visualization and his work at Datascope Analytics. After reading this post, and hearing him speak at our meeting, I hope you are encouraged to reach out and speak with him. It may turn into an opportunity for you as Datascope Analytics is growing and has some exciting projects starting soon.

Your presentation for the August 15 meeting of the CDVG is titled “Data-driven: at the intersection of design and analytics”.  Can you give me a little preview of what you will be speaking about and why you have chosen this topic?

I will walk through a project or two from start to finish to give a sense of how we approach problems and to emphasize the importance of designing compelling visuals to achieve our results.

Describe Datascope Analytics

We are a data-driven consulting and design firm. Instead of specializing solely in design, consulting or analytics, we operate in the space where these three functions intersect. With this broader perspective we are able to provide solutions customized for the data and challenges unique to our clients. We believe that this comprehensive approach has differentiated us in the analytics market.

What are some of your signature clients?  Can you discuss the projects you did for them?

Proctor & Gamble contracted us because they needed their employees to adopt a new work process throughout a multinational and multi-functional organization. We conducted a social network analysis and created an influence network model. With this we identified the thought leaders and change agents who are simultaneously well-respected by their peers and optimally positioned in the influence network to foster a movement. The result was a team of ambassadors who will spearhead change in the organization.

P&G Influence Network created by Datascope Analytics
P&G Influence Network created by Datascope Analytics

We’ve also worked with companies like Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a global information services provider, and a global e-discovery services provider.

Can you describe your design process?

We have developed a four stage process that has been successful for us. It has four major phases.

    1. Clarifying our clients need. This is a collaborative exercise with the client to brainstorm ideas. We then select a few options that are the best fit for the problem and create prototypes. Our ability to create prototypes is one of our strengths.
    2. Identifying the data that can be combined or created to provide insight for our clients. This may be data from within the client’s organization or from external sources. If the data is incomplete, we fill in the gaps with custom tools and surveys. All of this data is combined to provide a reusable asset for the client.
    3. Designing the analysis. We know that our clients, and their data, are unique. Consequently, we don’t use the same analytical tools for every project. We are a custom shop because we believe we deliver greater insight in to a client’s data than we can with a vended software package.
    4. Communicating the results with a LivingReport™. This is our unique solution that is more effective than just text or a table of numbers. It is a visual representation of the data that shows the patterns that can reveal valuable insight about the client’s business.

What technology does Datascope Analytics use to create their visualizations?

We use open source development tools to develop custom solutions for our clients instead of using vendor software. We feel the vendor packages have considerable functionality but are ultimately more limited that our custom solutions. For analysis, Datascope Analytics uses Python, R and Hadoop. Raphael.js and D3.js are used for visualization. We have also created our Lens™ library: a set of analysis tools that let clients see into their data with more clarity. It is built in Python and is the glue that sticks everything together coherently.

What is it like to run a data visualization startup?

My days are divided into three activities: white boarding solutions, coding, and interacting with clients. These aren’t eight hour days, however, so I get to spend a considerable amount of time on each of these. And that’s okay because I enjoy them all.

How would you describe the Chicago data visualization community?

I would like to see the Chicago data visualization community mirror the diversity of businesses that exist in our market. Unlike the financial focus of New York or the tech focus in San Francisco, Chicago has a very rich set of industries that could all benefit from data visualization excellence and cross-fertilization of ideas. This meetup one of several great ways to start the process of sharing ideas and bringing together the diverse community interested in data visualization.

What help in starting Datascope Analytics did you get from the Chicago community?

Northwestern University Farley Center was instrumental in getting us off the ground. They provided accounting services, space, and mentoring. We were also fortunate enough to receive deeply discounted legal assistance from the Loyola Law Clinic.

We have also benefitted from collaborations with other start-up companies in the Chicago area like Syndio Social.

Who are some of your favorite data visualization designers? What are some of your favorite data visualizations?

Moritz Stefaner and Stephanie Posavec are two of my favorites. I like how each of them thinks outside the box to come up with interesting ways of using different graphic elements to visualize data. Naming a favorite is difficult, but I particularly like Stephanie Posavec’s “11 x” series which, despite the simplicity behind the underlying visualization, is a fun way to explore the emergent patterns in the long multiplication.

What advice do you have for those interested in getting started in data visualization?

Get started playing with data any way you know how. Start with a pencil and paper, make a static image, and — if it is useful to do so — create something interactive. The only way to learn what works and what doesn’t is to try and iterate, not read and regurgitate

New Meeting! Data-driven: at the intersection of design and analytics

Please join us for our next Chicago Data Visualization Group meetup. We will be meeting August 15 at Lincoln Station, 2432 N. Lincoln Avenue starting at 6pm.  Our program includes:

Data-driven: at the intersection of design and analytics by Dean Malmgren

As a co-founder of Datascope Analytics, a data-driven consulting and design firm here in Chicago, Dean has learned first hand about how the modern data deluge makes statistics and design particularly valuable in today’s marketplace. In this talk, he will share his experience as a consultant for a wide range of clients by walking us through a few of his engagements, from idea generation to prototype to delivery.

Great news also is that Datascope Analytics is hiring! Come hear Dean talk and then introduce yourself.

Matej Mavricek will briefly discuss Power Switch.

This is an energy think tank in Chicago focusing on effective research of the US Energy sector. He has a particular interest in creating some visualizations of the Electric Power Grid. He will discuss his objectives for a visualization and present the data that Power Switch has gathered. Anyone interested in creating visualizations of this data will be able to post them on the CDVG website and solicit feedback from other CDVG members. Matej will also offer feedback on the visualizations created and Power Switch may choose to use the visualizations in their materials. This is a great opportunity to get practice and exposure!

Please join us at Lincoln Station at 6pm and connect with your friends and colleagues with Lincoln Station’s great beer menu. The program will start at 6:30.  Lincoln Station is near the intersection of Lincoln and Fullerton avenues. Its a 20 minute drive or train ride and a short walk from the loop.