A visualisation looking at the top 30 selling CDs of the last 30 years.

Odd jobs - Data visualisation

Advancing trends in technology are giving a revolutionary new approach to data discovery and decision-making. One of the most exciting of these is data visualisation.

The world of data analysis is experiencing a revolution. Streams of data are growing globally at over 50 per cent a year thanks to a raft of new sources - from digital sensors in shipping crates that can communicate location, temperature and even chemical changes in the air to the billions of publicly available likes and follows between people and products or brands on social networking sites.

This abundance of data has spurred a huge drift toward data-driven discovery that extends well beyond business. Fields as varied as science, sports, public health, academia, government and law enforcement are all joining the quantification race.

And jogging alongside are a contingent of new design companies whose goal is to convey this cache of confounding information to an ever-expanding audience - more creatively than via conventional tables, pie-charts and bar graphs.

Tableau Software

One such is Tableau Software. This global design company, whose board includes Professor Pat Hanrahan, the brains behind Pixar’s groundbreaking RenderMan animation technology, was one of the first off the blocks in realising that computer graphics could deliver huge gains in people’s ability to understand information.

But rather than analysing data in text form and then just creating visuals of those findings, it invented a technology called VizQL™ which allows for both visualisation of and interaction with data. In other words making databases and spreadsheets understandable and fun for ordinary people.

A career path with a difference

Tableau’s senior product consultant is Andy Cotgreave whose career path began in a slightly zigzagging trajectory, which, as it turned out was rather fortuitous.

“I left school 22 years ago with the ambition of doing fine arts, but ended up doing a geography degree followed by computer science and maths,” Cotgreave explains. “When I graduated I went into software engineering and worked on projects like developing software for use in primary schools and writing foreign exchange archiving software, but as I moved to different companies I ended up getting more focused on data.”

At this juncture much of Cotgreave’s remit was ‘under the hood’ dealing with the nuts and bolts of data storage, design, and administration. But eventually he realised that, while many colleagues were reveling in the depths of data systems, he was itching to play on the surface where data is interpreted to provide insight, make discoveries and decisions.

It was at Oxford University as a senior data analyst working with student data to find and share information about applications and performance on courses that Cotgreave first stumbled on Tableau’s software.

“We’d look at students’ gender, ages, backgrounds, degree subjects etc. to see how they performed. Then delved further the data to understand how courses, selection processes and graduation destinations all fit together.

“Once you dive into the data you discover all kinds of things, which you then have to try and communicate to people. Where previously people relied on static tables and graphs – neither of which give you much insight, the Tableau software allowed our audience to interact with the data and properly understand it. I loved what I was doing at Oxford so much I ended up working for the company who’s software I’d been using.”

What data visualisation work entails

Cotgreave’s job is richly rewarding in that it’s varied as he gets to tap into many different industries and allows him to spread the word about this exciting new medium by actually teaching data visualisation.

One of his recent gigs was for the Official UK Charts company around the 30th anniversary of the CD.

“They gave me lists of the top 30 CDs, the artists, year of release, how many they sold etc. and wanted it illustrated in an engaging way. So we came up with interactive charts that the audience could play around with and jump to different pages – which is now permanently embedded into the Official Charts website.”

Another area that Cotgreave frequents is online journalism.

“I’ve done a lot of stuff for The Guardian online newspaper. One of the most visited stories of the past few months was the UN World Drug Report, where we’d come up with interactive maps exploring global illicit drug trends. The great thing about ‘data interactives’ is that people can see the bigger picture and once they’re drawn in they can delve into more detail. This gives much more than just a newspaper story as the reader can choose at which level they want to engage.”

Part artist, part engineer

Another plus side to working in data visualisation is that its skill set is not restricted to one discipline. Data scientists are part artist and part engineer. They need a toolbox of techniques, processes and abilities from which to construct novel solutions, create elegant visualisations and they need to be able to communicate well with people.

“What I do now encapsulates everything I’ve done since leaving school – artist, designer, engineer and thinker,” says Cotgreave. “Many people think that you have to be a qualified programmer to write software – but that really depends on what tools you use. Tableau, for example, needs no coding or scripting at all so you can create amazingly rich, interactive experiences pretty much just by using your mouse.”

“That said, engineers are potentially very good at this job as a maths background gives you procedural skills in getting from A to B that translates very well into coding and writing software. Engineers have to design entire systems and the methods they use to work out a problem gives them an added advantage in thinking of even more creative ways of presenting data.”

Data visualisation as a career option

In 2009 Google’s chief economist Hal Varian stated, “The ability to take data - to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualise it, to communicate it - that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.” And his prediction was bang on. The recent tsunami of data continues to pick up speed and jobs in data science are increasing exponentially.

According to Cotgreave, “Tableau as a company has doubled in size over the last four years. And it’s not about taking market shares – it’s the actual market itself.”

But there is an ongoing huge skills shortage: a 2011 McKinsey Global Institute study predicted a talent gap of 140,000 to 190,000 people by 2018 in the US alone.

“We are always trying to recruit people at Tableau,” says Cotgreave, who is also involved in his company’s recruitment process.

“What is the perfect person? I think you could come into this field from pretty much any background – as long as you’re equipped with the first and most important trait – curiosity.”

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