Need a datavis team? You may already have one

Written by Andrea Lau
Published on 1 May 2015

About the author

Andrea is a data visualisation specialist, co-founder and one of the directors of Small Multiples, a data visualisation studio based in Sydney. She is a strong advocate for data transparency and technology which brings this data to life for the people who it is most relevant to. Andrea has been a passionate teacher of data and visual literacy, including doing workshops for Guardian Australia; lecturing and tutoring final year at the University of Sydney and UTS and General Assembly.

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We're honoured to welcome our friend and datavis expert, Andrea Lau of Small Multiples, to show us what it takes to round up a great data visualisation team.

A data visualisation team is a digital design team with a focus on data. Together, this team can work to create anything from a fully dynamic and interactive website, to a datavis widget, an informative poster, or a static infographic for social media.

The people you'll find on a datavis team are: the communicator, the data wrangler, the designer, and the coder.

For each datavis role above, we’ll list the current roles people might have, and the software or skills they will have and know. We’ll try and list software that is already being used, or open source software, to get your team up and running will minimal fuss.

The Communicator

The communicator in a data visualisation finds how to use data and information to tell a story. The communicator engages the data wrangler to help find the data to tell the story, and keeps the team on course during the project.

Data visualisation often begins with a story, from which the data you need follows. Other times, looking into data without thinking about the story might unearth some surprises (more about that next).

The communicator helps to understand:

  • the audience for your data visualisation
  • what information will be useful to them
  • what sort of presentation is desired, and
  • how this matches your organisation’s business requirements.

For example, a communicator might talk to stakeholders and determine that managers in the organisation need to show the impact of sustainable practices and their effects through an interactive tool so that the business can reduce their environmental impact.

Current roles

Communications officer, communications manager, UX designer, designer, strategist, producer, content strategist, marketing manager, interaction designer, strategist.

Software and skills

Interviewing, audience research (people skills), content drafting and planning, writing and editing (word processing, spreadsheets), sketching and visual planning (Balsamiq, Illustrator, Photoshop, Fireworks, Sketch App, Axure, Powerpoint, Pages).

Team notes

The communicator may also be the designer, or the data wrangler (and, if you're lucky, the coder, too!)

Data Wrangler

The data wrangler in a data visualisation project would work with the communicator to help build the story, with the coder to prototype data visualisations, and with the designer to ensure accuracy of the representation.

Data can come in top-down or bottom-up. Top-down data is already known, eg. we know the organisation has electricity, water, and recycling bills and records to use. Bottom-up data found during the data research phase casts new light onto the topic, eg. an organisation might keep a log of when computers turn off and log out of the network.

The data wrangler:

  • helps to understand existing known data
  • does research to find new data
  • cleans and processes data
  • keeps a reference and source of all the data used.

Current roles

Researcher, data analyst, developer, manager.

Software and skills

Statistics and data analysis (R, spreadsheets, Tableau), data and databases (Google Fusion Tables, Open Refine, SQL, MongoDB, JSON, APIs), research and writing (word processing, spreadsheets).

Team notes

The data wrangler may also be the communicator, and possibly the coder.

The Designer

The designer in a data visualisation project has a particular emphasis on keeping the data representation accurate, and the hierarchy of the information clear.

The designer creates a visual story and interface that people will see and interact with. The designer takes the brief and understanding provided by the communicator, transforming a mixture of content and data provided by the data wrangler into a coherent visualisation.

The designer:

  • has a sketching and wireframing process to act as a document for the team
  • understands that certain types of data should be visualised in certain ways
  • integrates the visual language and brand of the organisation
  • understands the hierarchy of data and information and will translate this visually.

Current roles

Designer, interaction designer, strategist, designer.

Software and skills

Sketching and wireframing (pencil and paper, Balsamiq, Omnigraffle, Axure, InVision, Powerpoint, Pages), designing (Illustrator, Photoshop, Sketch App, Fireworks).

Team notes

The designer may also be the communicator.

If you don’t have a designer, replace with: the communicator using a presentation or drawing tool.

The Coder

The coder in a data visualisation project has a particular emphasis on being part of the formation of the story with the communicator and data wrangler, and ensuring the data is accurately translated during development.

The coder takes the data and transforms it into something usable and accessible.

The coder has two key roles:

  1. As a prototyper to help the data wrangler find trends and patterns in the data
  2. As a developer to turn the designs into the final data visualisation.

The coder:

  • helps to translate real data into real representations
  • ensures that data is translated into accurate visuals and doesn't mislead (eg. incorrect scales)
  • helps build a framework to help keep a visualisation up-to-date.

Just because your final visualisation is an image doesn’t mean the coder isn’t required. The coder might create a tool so that the image can be updated when new data comes in, for example.

Current roles

Programmer, analyst, web developer, amazing designer.

Software and skills

Statistics and data analysis (R, spreadsheets, Tableau), data and databases (Google Fusion Tables, Open Refine, SQL, MongoDB, JSON, APIs), mapping (Tilemill, Mapbox, Google Maps, CartoDB, LeafletJS), development (JavaScript, Python, Ruby, D3.js, R).

Team notes

The prototyper may also be the data wrangler.

If you don’t have a coder, replace with: the data wrangler who can use statistical packages or spreadsheets, or the designer who can do some maths in their drawing package.

Small Multiples is a data visualisation studio based in Sydney. Filled with a team of data visualisation specialists, UI and UX designers, visual designers, and developers, we create ways to help people find value in data.

End of article.
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