Interview with Zak Geis | The winner of the 10th Data For A Cause challenge

In this interview, I talked with Zak Geis, the winner of the 10th Data For A Cause challenge for Rainbow Railroad. The goal of the competition was to visualize state-sponsored violence towards LGBTQI people around the world and show the Rainbow Railroad's impact in inspiring people to support the cause.

Zak is from the United States. He got started with Tableau around 7 years ago. He was doing a lot of traditional reporting at the time, building things with Excel and Access for a quality assurance group, when his company decided to transition their process and at the same time introduce visuals and analytics to their users. Zak jumped on that project and fell in love with Tableau. He learned everything he could about it: Tableau's on-demand content, training, blogs, and the Tableau Public Gallery.

Eventually, after working through that for a couple of years, he decided that he wanted to do something different. He left his job and joined JPMorgan Chase & Co, and is currently engaged helping build their Tableau center of excellence. They've since grown their user base to over 20 000 users and 3000 developers. His day-to-day routine includes working with users, creating processes, training and best practices, architecting the servers and data strategy, and helping users with general questions about Tableau.

How did your data visualization come together?

I've watched Data For A Cause for a long time. I've always wanted to contribute, but I just never really got around to it. With this one, I knew that I really wanted to be a part of it. It was really just an amazing cause, but it's also sad that there really needs to be one.

As far as the visualization itself is concerned, usually I start by reviewing the data; in this case, that also included going through the Rainbow Railroad's website, videos, and posts. I wanted to get a sense of their group, what their stand for, and their history.

From there, what I typically do, is to sketch a couple of designs to guide myself when I get to building it. That's once I get a sense of the data, I don't usually do the design before I get to know the data, just to make sure that I'm not stuck into a specific design before understanding exactly what I have access to.

With this challenge, I wanted to go with a simple design. I wanted the title to really capture the attention of the user, because the cause itself is what this is really for. I just wanted to include some simple elements. I didn't want to go too technical or too analytical with my visualization. I showed what's happening and how Rainbow Railroad is helping, and at the bottom it was important to show a few ways the viewer can get involved.

I knew that I wanted to have just a few sections - the big topics. It's happening today, it's happening across the world and that's what the map shows. It shows that Rainbow Railroad is helping where they can, but they are having trouble keeping up with the cost associated with it. And of course, the most important thing is showing the viewers that there is a way to get involved and that they can help too.

I chose the colors and the format because I felt that they mirrored their website, and I wanted to build something that would look like it was built by their team, compliment their site, compliment their style, and easily fit in with what they've already done.

I spent about a week on that. I have a new baby and at that time he was only about a week old. So I tried to fit it in between everything else, and when he was asleep and my wife was asleep, I would just spend an hour researching here and there. The visualization itself I built through the Saturday night. It took about four to five hours to build it.

What are some of your favorite data visualization resources?

I do a lot of reading on the subject - articles, books, and I even listen to a podcast when I commute to work every day!

Some of my favorite books are: "Information Dashboard Design" by Stephen Few, "Storytelling With Data" by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, "The Big Book of Dashboards" by Andy Cotgreave, Jeffrey Shaffer, and Steve Wexler, "The Truthful Art" by Alberto Cairo, and really anything by Edvard Tufte as well.

When it comes to blogs, there are so many great ones. Some of my favorites are those by Andy Kriebel, Ryan Sleeper, Pooja Gandhi and Adam Crahen. The Tableau Public website is also an amazing resource to gain inspiration and learn new things. Most of the visualizations they have are available for download, so anybody can deconstruct them to really learn how the author created them.

When it comes to podcasts, there are a few good ones: "Podcast Your Data" by InterWorks, "Data Stories" by Enrico Bertini and Moritz Stefaner, "Storytelling With Data" by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, "Policy Viz" by Jonathan Schwabish.

What are some of your favorite data visualization tools?

It's Tableau. I do have experience working with some of the other tools. I worked a little bit with Qlik, Power BI, and the recently released Flourish. But I feel that nothing I've ever worked with has ever come close to Tableau. I'm probably a little bit biased with my work, but I just find that Tableau can really do anything.

Recently, I battled a little bit with D3.JS. It's so widely leveraged in the broader data visualization community. There are really amazing things that have been built with it. It’s a steep learning curve, and it will be a while before I get comfortable with it, but it’s something that's in the back of my mind and I plan to invest my time into it.

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

Zak's data visualization