An Analogy for Data Visualization

How Tableau’s Iron Viz contest imitates (data viz) life

The practice of data visualization requires more than dragging and dropping to create different charts – it requires balancing steak and sizzle, or data and design, just like Tableau’s Iron Viz competition.

Hi, this is Ryan of Playfair Data TV. And I’m just returning from the annual Tableau Conference where I always come back very remotivated and just fired up about Tableau for the next year. And there’s one thing about the conference every year that really reminds me about my– and kind of confirms my approach to data visualization every year– and that is called the Iron Viz Championship.

If you’re not familiar with this contest, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a Keynote presentation every year at the Tableau conference. It’s held live in front of about 10,000 people– I’ve actually got some photos on here to show you just how the scope of how many people are in the room there. But the contest is held between three finalists that are up on the stage, they’re each given the same dataset, and they have 20 minutes to create the best data visualization that they can in front of all these people.

So this year we had, I don’t know it looks like about 12,000 people in the room. As you can see, they’re given these glow sticks. And it’s a great atmosphere. There’s even more people watching on a simulcast and the competitors are up there. Here’s a few more photos, there’s a couple of hosts. They do their best to provide some comic relief during what I’m sure is a very stressful time for the three finalists up there on stage, as I mentioned. So there is a picture of the finalists.

And their what are called sous-vizzers. That’s their teammate that’s trying to support them as they’re creating their visualizations live up there on stage. And then it wraps up with some judging, both by some expert judging panel up on the stage, as well as a social media vote. So they can use these hashtags to vote on this. But what I’ve realized over the years is this Iron Viz Championship itself has really become symbolic of my overall approach to data visualization. And again, like I mentioned in the introduction, it always is a gigantic reminder of how I should approach data visualization and why I want to share this message with you in this video.

That Iron Viz contest every year– doesn’t fail– it’s held between three of the best Tableau users in the world. It would be a lot of fun just to see them doing their thing up on stage, regardless of how showy the contest was. But that by no means stops Tableau in any way from not making it a giant show, as you can see from these pictures. There’s a time limit, creating a sense of urgency. There’s always people in the room with the glow sticks. There’s fog. There’s these giant jumbotrons in the background allowing us to see every competitor’s every move.

And the reason this has become an analogy for how I approach data visualization is I think of those three finalists up there as the substance. You’ve probably heard of the steak and sizzle analogy. This is very similar. They’re the substance, the steak, that’s good enough to stand on its own. Like I said, it’d be a lot of fun just to watch that regardless of all the show around it, but Tableau still adds that sizzle. They still make it a giant marketing event to attract people there, get all these really cool photos of everybody up there on the stage, and make it really engaging.

And the reason that is symbolic to me and why I think of that as an analogy for data visualization is you certainly can’t have data visualization without the data. That’s the substance, that’s the steak. Yes, that is the most critical aspect of data visualization. If you don’t have a strong data foundation to build on, you have nothing. You can’t do anything else.

However, I still believe that there is a lot of value in balancing some of the engagement aspects. So when it comes to data visualization, I think of that as the design and the user experience. Here at Playfair Data, we’re always striving to balance those two things– the data, as well as the design. So I just wanted to reiterate that. I had a lot of fun at the conference and wanted to share that message with you.

This has been Ryan with Playfair Data TV – thanks for watching!