In this interview, I talked with Marcin Antas, the winner of the recent Data for a Cause challenge – Visualizing shelters to help military veterans adopt a new pet for Pets for Patriots.
Marcin lives in the UK. He works at Flex, a company which provides engineering and supply chain insight and logistics services. He moved into a reporting role 1.5 years ago, at the same time as his company was introducing Tableau. This meant his work involved not only taking over all the information related to reporting in the business, but also learning a new platform, and moving from Excel into more visual and interactive ways of reporting to management.
Marcin has been happy about his career change, and found he was able to pick up Tableau quite quickly in the new role. Although his role involves quite a lot of BI tasks - moving data around, ensuring data integrity, and setting up automation workflows - he enjoys data visualization and finds it really interesting. "Because data visualization is a combination of many different tasks: shaping data, understanding data and designing", says Marcin.
How did your data visualization come together? How long did it take you to create your winning data visualization?
I think it took at least an hour, but probably much more. I didn't really count. I spent time on it in the evenings, as soon as everyone else was asleep, just trying to put something together. I did this for several evenings in a row.
In terms of the process itself, I try to put something together in my head first. I probably should start with paper, but I never really have the patience to do that! I try to build something ‘in rough’ right away and see what works.
I started with a full map, with all the partners, but it was too congested, and didn't really work. I tried to split it into regions, then split it into states, and into multiple layers, but that didn't work either. The output of that process was the little map with the details inside it.
I always assume that people will need proper instructions to move through a multilayer map, so I was afraid that there was a lack of information for the end user to move around, but it ended up being quite intuitive.
I probably spent most time trying to move things around and trying to find a place for every element. I also spent some time with the automation as well - trying to figure out how to deal with going to single states on the map. It was a learning curve for me. And that's what I like about Tableau - if you have a problem, just ask a question on Google and someone will have solved it already. Also, there are several solutions for the same thing, all of them nicely laid out and ready to be implemented.
At first, I was going with a three-level automation with a map divided into four US regions, and then a map which would go to another level down with just the zoom of the region, and then down to the state level - but it was a bit too much. So I Googled a few ideas on presenting data on a map, and found an article on maps in a hex format. It solved the problem of states like Alaska and Hawaii being separate, with empty space in between. This approach simplified things to a single click.
I set the automation using Actions in Tableau. I removed map options because I was afraid that if someone started to zoom and pan, they would not be able to move back to the original state of the map. I also struggled with the overlapping of the shapes on the map, so I used a trick to make things smaller when they were closer together, and bigger when far apart. So if the partners were in the same city, I just divided them by the count of partners in the same location, and then used that as the size of the shape.
It took me about a week to finish it. I got feedback from my partner. I also got feedback from my boss, Andrew Charlesworth, who also works with Tableau. It was important to get the ideas and opinions of others. It was sort of a test for me. Andrew gave me one or two ideas that I implemented later on, one of which was about the layout. It worked out well.
What are some of your favorite data visualization resources?
I‘m trying to learn the visual- and the data design. It's sort of where I feel I'm lacking right now, so I'm looking for books and looking into design. I'm quite ashamed of a few visualizations that I did in the past, which are slowly being rebuilt. I recently bought an interesting book, "Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals", and I’m going through all the advice. Some of it I've already started to apply, without even realizing it, but the rest is very helpful.
When I started with Tableau, it was all self-study, so I probably started from the completely wrong end. I began by taking data that I knew well and trying to put it into the visual that I wanted to achieve. It took me hours and days to even achieve simple results, because I had moved from Excel logic. Tableau is very intuitive, but if you don't understand it and you don't even view some basic tutorial videos, you will struggle.
I didn't appreciate Tableau at first, and only recently have got how things are done. It is still about self-study, but I’m more organized now. I got several books, including the one I just mentioned.
I also started to attend different Tableau webinars and monthly Tableau meetings. I find these quite helpful.
Recently, I attended a two-day training provided by the company, and I'm very grateful for that. It was very good. I found plenty of shortcuts, and learned how to do things much quicker. We have a book on our desk at work: " Information is Beautiful". It is more like an album, but it makes your brain try to figure out how can you present your information in an impactful way.
I'm also learning other relevant skills, like databases and SQL. I'm going to look into maths and statistics as well. All in all, it's a combination of what is required at work, and what interests me.
What's your favorite data visualization tool?
Tableau is my favorite. Having learned Tableau, it is now more of a question of how to do things, rather than whether or not it’s possible, in Tableau. Tableau is a powerful tool.
I recently read about R. I might be looking into it in the future. I also heard about Microsoft Power BI, and I think I will be looking into this as well, because it’s probably going to be everywhere soon, like Excel and Word.
Marcin's data visualization (click on the image to view the interactive version):
This concludes the fourth of the series of interviews with winners of the Data for a Cause challenge, where volunteers from all over the world design data visualizations for mission-driven organizations, NGOs and charities.
In each article of this series, we focus on one of our amazing volunteers, to share their story or perspective, and to reveal their insights on how they achieved the level of expertise they have today. Read interviews with past winners, and learn how Athan Mavrantonis, Angie Chan and Amarendranath Donthala created their winning data visualizations.
Can you create data visualizations? Then join the Data for a Cause challenge!