Projects: Data Visualization for Absolute Beginners, a class presented in cooperation with edtech startup General Assembly; The Absurdly Illustrated Guide To Your First Data Visualizations

We live in an exciting era — one where the tools of data visualization and the availability of data have reached a point where it’s not just for specialists anymore. Anyone with curiosity, some basic computer skills, and a dash of fearlessness can learn how to use data visualization skills to do whatever it is that they do better.

mylar balloon with the words "why bother" on itBut perhaps the most important question we can ask ourselves about any new endeavor is this: why bother? Why take the time to become data fluent? Why take the time to master the basic building blocks of how to present that data to others?

I can’t tell you why you might bother, but I can tell you why I do. I think a good data visualization can be a force for unity, insight, even justice, just the way a song, a documentary, or a march can.

There’s another reason why I believe it matters. More and more often, the most important stories facing our communities and our world are distributed — they’re not happening in one place, to one person or group of people.


They’re happening to many people in many different communities. As an example, think of the foreclosure crisis. Typically, we try to tell these stories by telling the story of an individual, and hoping that people will make the mental leap to allow this person to stand in for the huge number of people facing the same problem. But this “storytelling by anecdote” method has its limits: in particular, it leaves us open to he said-she said types of debates, where people with another agenda try to win arguments simply by having better anecdotes, whether those a

distributed-globalnecdotes represent a widespread problem or an isolated incident.

My interest in giving more people tools to have the kinds of insights that can really make change in communities is the basis for the popular Data Visualization for Absolute Beginners course I give at General Assembly. If you’d like to follow along yourself, I’ve written a number of highly illustrated, step-by-step tutorials for creating your first data driven map, scatterplot, and other helpful data presentations.

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