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Midwest Matters June 17th, 2021
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A Data Visualization Journey

Posted by on May 24th, 2021 Posted in: Blog


In November 2019, I was awarded a scholarship by NNLM-PNR (Pacific Northwest: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington) to attend a data visualization workshop titled “Accessing, Analyzing, and Visualizing IPUMS Data” in Denver, CO. The workshop, hosted by PolicyViz, was facilitated by Jonathan Schwabish, Urban Institute; David Van Riper, IPUMS; and Jose Pacas, IPUMS. I was eager to attend as I was on a journey to learn two new skill sets: data visualization and teaching data visualization to others – and the experience did not disappoint. First, the venue chosen was very cool – General Assembly reminded me of something out of the Grizzle Campus from Parks & Recreation – complete with glassed-in classrooms, concrete floors, and a café that sells sparkling waters you’ve never heard of before. Our workshop had only six attendees, which really personalized the experience. My co-students ranged from educators to business analysts – and we had a good laugh during introductions when we realized that two instructors and myself were all from the University of Minnesota (I flew all the way to Denver to learn from folks on my own campus – and it was totally worth it!).

There were quite a few significant takeaways.

  • Sketching. One of the first exercises we did was to use post-it notes to sketch as many different ways to visualize a particular scenario as we could imagine. This simple exercise stretched my creative limits and reinforced the importance of experimentation and imperfection in data visualization. I had attended one other workshop that required a similar exercise, and I found these experiences so valuable that I decided to add them to the data visualization workshop that I would teach at my institution.
  • Data sources. Unexpectedly, I also learned a lot about publicly available health data which I was previously unaware. IPUMS data is produced and managed by my own institution – which is especially convenient for me! When imagining what type of data visualization workshop I would teach, I had not considered data sources, but the real-world health data featured in this workshop was an excellent use-case. It helped me to recognize the practicality of a workshop utilizing publicly available data.
  • Tools. I left the workshop with a number of tools, including a practice toolkit (digital files), a data visualization chart guide, and Jonathan’s textbook “Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks.” The book and chart guide, in particular, have been invaluable in developing my own data visualization workshop.
  • Teaching model. The full-day workshop flew by; in part, due to the smartly organized teaching model. There were fun exercises where we pushed our creative boundaries, lecture that incorporated attendee feedback, follow-along data analysis, and interesting and accessible (in terms of being easy to understand for newcomers) data visualization techniques explained. I knew that I could not follow this exact model when I teach my own one-hour workshop, but I did incorporate three of these techniques: creative sketching, audience feedback throughout, and accessible visualization examples.

What ever came of this experience? A professional development leave, two data visualization workshops, and a guide for other libraries looking to expand their data visualization services. “Accessing, Analyzing, and Visualizing IPUMS Data” was one of many courses, workshops, and presentations I attended in preparation, but it was significant in it’s contributions. In July 2020, I was awarded a six-week professional development leave to create two data visualization workshops. I relied heavily on Jonathan’s book for my workshop titled “Data Visualizations: Design Principles & Targeted Messaging to Effectively Communicate Your Research” and used the real-world data concept for my workshop titled “Introduction to Tableau.” I teach each of these workshops once per semester to an interdisciplinary and interprofessional audience, and both are well attended. Both of them are also constantly evolving based on feedback and new learning experiences. I look forward to teaching them in-person some day! A final output was the Data Visualization Services Toolkit for Libraries – a guide for any librarians or libraries seeking to develop or grow data visualizations skills and services.

Shanda Hunt, MPH
Public health librarian & data curation specialist
Health Sciences Library, University of Minnesota

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This project has been funded in whole or in part with Federal funds from the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Grant Number 1UG4LM012346 with The University of Iowa.

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