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Discover how Angie Chen created her winning Data for a Cause visualization


This is the first of a series of interviews with the winners of the Data for a Cause challenge - a volunteer-driven project that bridges the gap between data visualization professionals and nonprofit organizations around the world. In each article of this series, we will focus on one of our amazing volunteers, to share their story or perspective, and to reveal their insights on how they got to the level of expertise they have today.

For today’s interview, I talked with Angie Chen, the winner of the Data for a Cause Education Inequality Challenge for DonorsChoose.org.

Angie started out in IT and accounting. She is a CPA and she used to work for Deloitte. After pursuing a Master’s degree in business analytics at the University of Cincinnati, she became fascinated with big data and analytics. She discovered her passion for data visualization after taking a class by Jeffrey Shaffer, who introduced her to Tableau. Currently she is working at the University of Cincinnati, grading the data visualizations of students in Jeffrey Shaffer’s class. She is an active member of the Tableau community, which gives her inspiration and data viz ideas. Angie is also a dog lover; she has a Boxer and Shar Pei mix.

Without further ado, here is Angie’s story.

Where do you find your inspiration for data visualization?

I find it inspiring to have a purpose behind making a data visualization. I really love Data for a Cause because the participating organizations have all been very interesting, and they all have a very good cause. It makes me want to help to make a difference and create a very good data visualization.

Similarly, I created a data visualization for International Women’s Day, because I’m very passionate about women's rights.

So, I’d say a lot of my inspiration comes from wanting to share a message with the world. I think that with data visualization we have a lot of power to shape opinions - similar to how writers and journalists do. People are really receptive to looking at a data visualization and infographics. They enjoy getting information quickly. So data visualization is another way of self-expression, like writing a blog or communicating in a different way. I use data visualization to share my passions and my message with the world. And that’s where my inspiration comes from.

How did your data visualization come together? How long did it take you to create your winning data visualization?

It’s hard to quantify how long I spent on it, but I think I spent almost a whole day on it. I had a lot of design ideas. I actually started on a sketchpad before I did anything on the computer. I looked at the data, went through all the variables and read about what these meant, and then I sketched out the ideas that I had on my sketchpad about what I wanted the layout to look like.

I had a lot of ideas about how I could represent the data. I made a lot of sketches. I wanted to have a design that represented the classroom because the challenge was focused on schools. I also wanted to represent the data in a clear way. Basically, half of my time I spent brainstorming and sketching and the other half I spent in Tableau. Because once I knew what I wanted to do and sketched it out on paper, it was then easy for me to figure out what I wanted to do in Tableau.

I tend to follow this process - I sketch it out and then I do it in Tableau. It’s like starting with a blank canvas. I got this idea from Jeffrey Shaffer. He made us do Dear Data postcards in his class. So we had to sketch a data visualization; and I actually ‘sewed’ mine using different stitching, to represent different data points. This was an interesting exercise because it made me realize how working with Tableau, R or other software limits our choices so we are not thinking outside of the box. I realized how starting out on a blank piece of paper makes you think outside of the box, so that you are not constrained to any type of software.

What are some of the challenges you faced when building the visualization, and how did you overcome them?

The hardest part for me was telling the story and telling the story right. I really wanted to tell the story that served its purpose for DonorsChoose.org. I think that this organization has such a great message.

Growing up, I was in public schools. I’ve been in some great schools with low levels of poverty, and I’ve also been in not-so-great schools with high levels of poverty. I’ve really seen the difference between those schools. The poorer schools definitely need a lot more resources than the schools that have low levels of poverty. So I felt personally that I really wanted to do the visualization justice and carry out the message.

I overcame that by really studying the data and really trying to understand what data is out there, and then thinking ‘as an audience’ what would be most impactful for me to see about DonorsChoose.org.

Seeing how many schools are out there with high poverty (the red and orange indicate high or moderate levels of poverty in the data visualization), and how many students lack the supplies and resources that are necessary to get them a good education - that was shocking to me and it made me realize how important DonorsChoose.org is.

So I wanted to focus on that for my visualization and I wanted to show how pervasive the need for resources is. I think for many people, especially those who are not in a high poverty school district or those who don’t have kids that are in school right now, it’s kind of like ‘out of sight out of mind’. I think the data visualization forces people to see how much of an issue this is.

What is your favorite data visualization tool?

My favourite tool is Tableau. Sometimes I use R for big data sets. We used R for some of the graduate school projects. I find Tableau more intuitive and user-friendly.

There is a lot you can do just simply dragging and dropping. And with the new release they’ve added a lot of new features such as a geospatial connector and some statistical analysis features. You can really do a lot with it to make a good dashboard. I love Tableau!

Angie's data visualization (click on the image to view the interactive version):

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