• James Smith

Decoding Encode 2019

Encode held its inaugural conference in September 2019 & I was lucky enough to attend the full two days of talks, plus the FT workshop run by John Burn-Murdoch and Federica Cocco.

The Conference, put together by Hem Patel & Pierro Zagami, centered on ‘Data journeys in design, journalism and education’. I came out of the conference on Friday evening with the usual post-conference buzz of ideas, inspiration and having met some great new people, but the content and tone of the conference were very different to any I’d experienced before. I definitely hope to attend again in 2020.


Before going any further, I should qualify that I consider myself to be a ‘data’ person with a big interest in design & journalism. I graduated in Geography & Statistics and moved straight into an Accountancy Qualification which has had me working with business data & analytics. Design & Journalism are things that I love to read about & consume outside of my day job, but I cannot claim to have any specific qualification in them.


Without having the chance to speak to all of the other attendees (and therefore this may be completely misguided), I got the sense that this background put me in the minority. I hadn’t heard of a large proportion of the speakers & many of them introduced themselves as working in data visualization studios or as data artists, doing extremely impressive work, but work that was quite detached from what I was used to working on & consuming myself. My biggest take away from Encode was the breadth of application of data visualization in different industries and worlds, from Quayola’s abstract landscapes to Territory Studio’s design of dashboards for futuristic sci-fi movies.


I made a note of the key themes that struck me during Encode and now I’ll take a shot at decoding them.



Drawing with Data


The conference had two add-on options for workshops, both held on the day before the talks kicked off. I opted for the FT Workshop, run by John Burn-Murdoch & Federica Cocco, but there was also a Data4Change workshop running earlier that morning. The session was themed around their collaboration on the Crunched podcast, taking a current news topic and crunching the numbers behind it to create a data story.


FT Workshop

Instead of using a particular program or software, the pair had pre-prepared sheets of paper that they would stick on the wall as they were talking through the different angles of the story. Sometimes, they’d have partially drawn sheets and add labels/lines to the charts to tell the story in real time, often in a different colour. The focus here was the story, not the precision of the line or data point being shown, but conveying the understanding & the trend of what was being shown on the pages.


We saw sketching being used again in the talk by Stefanie Posavec & Miriam Quick and also by Valentina D’Efilippo. Valentina’s idea of getting participants of her training from around the world to draw a world map freehand was inspired & was only possible through using pen and paper. It was fascinating to see interpretations of the world map from different cultures, often centering on & enlarging what was familiar to the author. My own group from the FT Workshop will testify that the UK was definitely front and Centre of our sketches and much larger than it proportionately should have been (debunking the myth that Geography students spend all of their time with crayons is a blog for another time..).


Returning to pen and paper is therefore not only a great way of prototyping future visualizations, but also for creating finished products. Though they often lack the precision of computer generated visuals, they were excellent for telling stories and often had layers of meaning to them that wouldn’t have been achievable on a computer.



Sonification


Not a word I was familiar with before the conference, but one that was left ringing in my ears by the end of the two days. Sonification is the use of non-speech audio to convey information or perceptualize data. It was a poignant theme in several of the talks - we saw a very powerful example of a visualization depicting the frequency of bullets fired at three US shootings. Audio was added to the dot plot and played every time a dot occurred, playing from left to right. There is no way that the visual would have been as powerful without the accompanying sound.


Sonification was also included in Andy Kirk’s talk on ‘the State of the Union in 2019’, in which he addressed the current state of data viz and what is on the horizon for the practice & its community. I am personally still working out where I stand on it - I think in examples such as the gunfire visualization it is incredibly effective. However, there were other examples during the conference where it wandered too far into the abstract for it to be effective as a way of conveying information. In these cases, too much depends on the individual interpretation of what they are hearing. I believe the scope for sound interpretation is much wider & more influenced by personal experience than visual interpretation. There is therefore a greater risk that the meaning the creator of the sound hopes to convey may be lost on their audience.

It is also important to make the distinction between narration; the overlay of speech to talk through a visualization, and sonification, the use of non-speech to convey information. From an accessibility perspective, both are a great way of perveying data to the visually impaired, but the two should not be confused.


Cellists play what they see & feel in the VR World



Passion Projects


Each talk ended with a brief Q&A with Conference creators Hem & Pierro. A question that seemed to pop up regularly went along the lines of: ‘If money & time were put aside, what project would you personally love to work on next?’ Answers varied for these ‘passion projects’, but in many cases it appeared that the speakers had previously or were currently living out their passion projects.


This is a wonderful position to be in. At Encode there was no shortage of passion; it is not something that is easily feigned and it was palpable throughout the talks. One of the most noticeable examples was David Sheldon-Hicks talk on the use of data in storytelling through films & video games. He was visibly excited about the work Territory Studio’s had done on Blade Runner 2049 and the Martian, and it felt like this passion enabled the audience to truly connect with what he was presenting. He also mentioned the personal quandary of having the opportunity to work on something that is personally meaningful and the possibility of screwing it up - an enviable or unenviable position to be in depending on whether you’re the one making the decision!


Passion Project: the Millennium Falcon!


The majority of the population won’t ever need to make that call. To be in a position to pick and choose which projects you work on most likely means that you’ve made it to close to the top of your chosen field (assuming these decisions aren’t being made for ethical reasons such as declining Tobacco or Gambling companies). By nature of being a speaker at the conference, these individuals are at the top of their field and all had stories that were inspiring & engaging. So how do you get to this position?


During the speaker introductions, most began with a brief review of the earlier days of their career and where they began. Many appeared to have been in the field for around 10 years, starting their data viz journeys around 2008/2009. Having recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, this trend made me think about whether there was an optimum time to enter the field of data viz in order to fulfil the ‘10,000 hours to mastery rule’ & therefore now be in a position to choose projects or work on passion projects. I’m certain the speakers will have had to work through their fair share of non-passion projects to gain the experience which now places them at the forefront of the field, but it would be interesting to look back in a few years to assess whether Gladwell’s rule is applicable to data viz - perhaps one for Mr Kirk to analyse in a future edition of the State of the Union.


Collaboration & Diversity


The final theme that struck me at Encode was the power of collaboration & diversity in data viz. Marie Segger from the Economist gave an excellent talk about the position of women & minorities in data journalism and provided suggestions on how to bring this into balance. Bronwen Robertson from Data4Change spoke about the lengths that her team goes to when selecting candidates to work on their sprints that come from different backgrounds and possess different characteristics. There is no debating that it is an extremely important topic in many fields, but it was inspiring to see Marie’s call to action & the solutions she proposed.


Alongside diversity of characteristics was the diversity of applications in data viz. As I’ve already mentioned, this was the biggest personal takeaway from Encode. I’ve been using data viz for 4 years now, either in a business context through my day job or in sports through my business on the side & work on Football & Formula 1. Most of this work falls in the world of Tableau, R & Illustrator. I felt that discussion around tools was noticeable through its absence. The role of technology was addressed regularly, but the mention of specific tools for creating visualizations was rare. My takeaway from this was that for many, the ideas & possibilities for creating vizzes were not necessarily constrained by what software is available. For me, the most inspiring example of this was the work by Shadi El Hajj of Refraction Labs. Some of the custom visualizations were mind-blowing and really redefined what I previously thought was possible.

There were also some really nice examples of collaboration. John & Federica worked really well together in the FT Workshop, bouncing off each other as they walked us through their Crunched podcast on crime statistics. It was also really interesting to hear the split of duties in the projects that Stefanie & Miriam work on - dividing the data prep & design responsibilities. It's something that I haven’t personally haven’t tried before, but would certainly be open to - if there are any talented programmers out there that have an interest in F1, I’d love to speak with you!


Encode wasn’t at all what I expected it to be, but it exceeded my expectations for that reason and I hope to be back in 2020! For another great write up of the Conference, I’d recommend taking a look at Neil Richard’s blog.

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