Interview with Kevin Knorpp | The winner of the 7th Data for a Cause Challenge

In this interview, I talked with Kevin Knorpp, the winner of the 7th Data for a Cause challenge – Visualizing global patterns of terrorism and peace for Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP).

Kevin works in the healthcare industry in Kentucky. He builds executive dashboards used in clinical quality management. Apart from data visualization, he also handles all the ETL, data modeling and data architecture, delivering full stack solutions.

Kevin heard about Tableau for the first time about 4 years ago, when someone at work mentioned it. His first visualization was about server utilization using Tableau Public. He was impressed - and he has been using it since then for personal projects and work. Kevin writes about data visualization and Tableau on his blog Typical Analytical.

How did your visualization come together?

Well, I actually struggled horribly with this one, and there are a couple of reasons why. I am not used to quick turnaround times. What I wanted to do initially, and this is typically what I do, was to put all of the data together, and analyze and explore it very deeply across every combination of dimension and measure. I often like to take a global look at things.

I started out with the goal of getting together all of the data points, indexes, and regions. I also had a secondary goal of trying to do something new or different, something I hadn’t tried yet. So my other goal was to do a single screen visualization with a pre-set amount of data.

However, the way that my week was going and the amount of time I had, and some of the things that I had identified that I wanted to do, meant it wasn’t really looking that great. So I decided to focus on the Global Peace Index only.

Where did you find the inspiration for your data visualization?

I decided that I was going to practice some concepts that Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic talks about in her book, Storytelling With Data. I wanted to practice pushing things to the background, emphasizing things, and making sure that things were explained. So that was a major inspiration, just trying to do something really clean and focused.

At the same time, I also realized that even with just the Global Peace Index, there was so much data. All the indicators, how all of these things are related to each other... that there was a lot more going on than I originally thought. I had fun trying to visualize the individual indicators. And I liked how it turned out.

I started to test it out with some guinea pigs of mine, like my daughter, noticing how her eyes were moving and the questions she had. So I decided to craft it like a book, with margins and explanations. After that it was really just a matter of repeating the template and breaking down the charts.

How did you come up with the idea of interpreting the score as less peaceful or more peaceful?

It took me a while to land on this particular visualization. I wanted to address everything at a country level, and I knew I was not interested in ranking. I wanted to show more information about the ranking than just the score. I wanted to show it so that people didn’t have to click and interact with something. It was very important to me to show at least some of these countries individually, and how they were moving.

Another thing that I decided to show was the decades. I didn’t look at 2017 vs 2016. I really wanted to look at the decade, and look at the movement, because things can be volatile year over year. And I think the trends are easier to see over the course of a decade. When I look at the decade, then I really see the movement. In looking at movement and also trying to challenge myself to look at individual countries, the scatterplot was the natural choice.

I skimmed through the Global Peace Index report, and I also watched the entire launch video for the GPI. There is a lot of discussion around regional differences and patterns within each region. But for me, regions aren’t really where the rubber hits the road: it’s the countries. Of course, when you are taking into consideration the drivers of trends, a lot of those are regional because of how the countries are governed and how neighbors are affecting each other. But I chose this route, because I wanted to challenge myself to look at the country level.

The other thing I was trying to do was to apply standard chart types. I’ve gotten really caught up in other projects where the esthetics are very important. You can have very beautiful pictures, but I always pick more of the standard chart types, because they represent the data.

Also, I often reach out to people who are not data visualization specialists for anything that’s meant for a broad audience, because it’s not data visualization people who will be reading this stuff. And that’s what really made it flow, once I did that.

What is your data visualization process? Do you follow a routine?

It’s very important to me. What I’m really looking for in the projects that I do is the opportunity to learn. The biggest thing is the impact that I make, which is why I love the Data for a Cause challenge. And it’s also about learning and doing something new. When I look at my portfolio and the work that I’ve done, I want to do something that complements my portfolio.

Once I get into the project, the first thing I do is start talking about the concepts that I’m working on and see what people think about them. So it’s about getting early feedback around the subject and some concepts.

Workwise, I’m getting deeply into the data, looking for any gaps, any issues, anything that I need to connect. The data is critical.

On the technical side of things… Tableau can be a theoretical limit, especially for things I haven’t done yet. So I have to evaluate what I can do, vs what it is I want to do. Then, I immediately start testing, thinking about how to accomplish things, just technically. It is that iterative approach to what you can do technically, what your ideas are, and if you hit a wall, how you can work around that. Serendipity is a huge part too. So I get really lucky a lot!

Another thing that I’ve recently started doing is dragging floating objects. Even if I’m doing a tiled visualization, I’ve started dragging objects around, mocking up visualizations. Some people use post-it notes and move them around, but if you have Tableau you don’t have to do that - you can drag around floating objects.

Feedback is important. Testing the visualization and making sure that it can stand on its own. If it’s something that you can release to the general audience.

Finally, an important part of my process is research. I always research the topic as much as I can. I watched the GPI launch video. And it really touched me, how important their work is. I’m very convinced how important it is to help things go in the right direction. There is a huge risk in things going in the wrong direction. I really understood what they were saying in the launch video, because they were so good at explaining and connecting the ideas. And even though I had very little idea about many of the dynamics that they were talking about, I could follow what they were saying, and so could others. It’s just a matter of getting people’s attention.

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

Data visualization by Kevin Knorpp

This concludes the fifth 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 Marcin-Antas, 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!

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