Speaker spotlight: Data visualisations with Nadieh Bremer

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How did you get from graduating as an astronomer to creating data visualisations for a living?
Haha, that's a bit of a meandering story. I started as a data scientist / consultant right after graduating as an astronomer (I knew a PhD wasn't what I wanted, I was looking for something more tangible and diverse). Since we often had to present our insights to clients, I often had to create visualisations of the data. That's how I (very slowly) discovered my love for data visualisation. 

I started spending my free time to learn more about D3.js and read about data visualisation best practices. I started a blog on which I shared my personal projects and build up a portfolio, which eventually landed me a job as a full-time data visualisation designer at Adyen. And now I've started as a part-time freelancer to see if there is a market for the more creative data visualisations. I actually wrote a blog post about my journey (jobs, tools learned, opportunities taken) on my website if you want to know more (and it features early embarrassing charts!

Journey Into Dataviz Header 1170X658

What’s the first step to creating a compelling data visualisation? 
You need to figure out what the visualisation will convey to the audience, what will people learn when they look at your visual? Or should they do something, like sign a petition? If you "just" have some data that you visualise without a question/goal to guide you, you're very likely to create a visual of "boring" data, with which I mean data that holds no interesting insights. Those visuals will just disappear into the void of internet excel charts.

What three tools (for creating data viz) can’t you live without?  
D3.js, statistics language R and Illustrator. But maybe if I had to choose just one, it would be R, since if I can't do a proper data preparation and analysis, the visualisation won't work (and you can do pretty decent visualisations with R as well actually!).

What was the single biggest challenge in a recent project of yours? 
Browsers not being able to handle the animations that I build into my visuals! And it's not the JavaScript running that is the problem, it's really the painting on the page. I always hate to have to compromise on an animation that I know looks wonderful if only the computer/browser could keep up...

And which project are you most proud of and why?
Hmmm, I think that would be my Olympic Feathers project. I visualised all ±5,000 gold medal winners since the first Olympic Games in 1896. For this project I really wanted to show this data in all its detail, so all 5,000 events/medals, not aggregated. And doing that in a manner that still looks welcoming to your audience is quit a challenge. The end result is still something for which you need to check out the legend to understand it I think, but I hope I've managed to make it look like something that people actually want to invest time into and find interesting insights in.

Olympic Feathers

How can data visualisations on the web be improved? 
More general I feel like most people just go for the bar or line chart even when other (simple) charts might show the insight that I think they want to convey in a more effective way. Think of charts such as slope charts, sankey diagrams or scatterplots, think that more and more tools are able to create. On the web specifically, I see a lot if "useless" interactivity actually (such as bar charts that have an axis where on a hover you see the value in a tooltip, even though you can read that from the axis...). Integrating interactivity can be an expensive part, time-wise, and just because you can do it these days, doesn't necessarily mean you should.

What can people expect to take away from your talk at Pixel Pioneers?    
How to actually think about going beyond those bars and lines. How to go about making a chart that is customised to your data and showing the insights that it holds in an effective and engaging manner.

Why did you decide to go freelance, and how has your life changed since?  
After a year working for one company I found out that I missed the diversity that I used to have in my previous job as an analytics consultant: different data, different problems, different industry every few weeks/months. So I decided I wanted to freelance as well, so I would get that diversity back again. That I could collaborate with people and work with companies that hold data that I'd love to dig into. It's been really great, although I've only been freelancing for three months. But I'm working with companies now from Google to a small company that does brain scans to see changes in emotions on how people perform tasks on the web, which really helps my creativity, this diversity.

What are you working on at the moment? 
I've just finished a really fun project for Google. I was given complete freedom which was awesome (and intimidating at the start) as long as it used Google data. I chose to dig into Google Translate data. This was driven by being a Dutch native, but 95% of my day is English, so I find myself translating words often. I was wondering how other languages translate words as well. Do German speakers want other words translated into English than Spanish speakers? Spoiler: yes, they do! I created a page that guides the viewer to the insights that I found with several (interesting I hope) visualisations.

March Nadieh

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?   
Maybe a silly one, but somebody once said, "If you know a certain tool or have a skill but you don't actually enjoy it, don't promote it. Don't put it on your resume, don't talk about it to (hiring) managers." Which is something I've done in the past. Due to starting out as a consultant I often had to comply to whatever tool the client was using, but only very few of those I enjoyed working with. So even though I know SAS, for example, I don't tell anybody (except for you now!). And I feel this really helped me give my boss and others a clear view of what I did enjoy doing a lot and what they could use me for, since what I do have on my resume is something I'm extremely enthusiastic about (D3.js, R, Illustrator, for example).

Nadieh will talk about "hacking the visual norm" at the inaugural Pixel Pioneers conference in Bristol on 22 June.  Get your ticket for just £125 including VAT now! There is also a student discount (30% off), and a group discount if you come as a team of five or more (£15 off per ticket). Drop us a line for details. 

Oliver L

Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant and founder of Pixel Pioneers. Formerly the editor of net magazine, he has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He is passionate about content, user experience, accessibility and designing for social good.

Oliver grew up in the northwest of Germany and moved to the UK in 2001. He now lives in Bath with his wife, daughter and three chickens.