In this interview with Amy Cesal, founding member of the Data Visualization Society, learn about her amazing personal project DayDoViz and how that daily practice stretched her skills, gained her notoriety, and made her better at what she does day to day.
(chill electronic music) - So I'm really looking forward to this conversation today with Amy Cesal. She's probably best known for her Day Doh Vis project, making data visualizations out of Play-Doh. A fantastic project, won all kinds of awards. Certainly an Information is Beautiful award, which is fantastic. She's also been doing data visualization for about 10 years for a variety of clients and employers. She's also a founding member of the Data Visualization Society, a really interesting new group which you should all check out. So, Amy, thank you very much for joining me here today and welcome. - Thanks for welcoming me. I'm so happy to be here and have this conversation. - So, our conversation today is really focusing in on daily practice, working on things every single day, which I believe is what Day Doh Vis was all about, right? It started as a daily practice exercise. Why don't you tell us a little bit about it, how you started it, what the goal was, and maybe how it evolved over time. - So, the story behind Day Doh Vis. Day Doh Vis started as a 100 day project, so the 100 day project is a project that a lot of creatives do and it's do one thing every day for 100 days. And so it's this challenge of doing something similar to get your brain working and there's a short timeline, you just have to do it. So I wanted to do something with data visualization, but something more fun than a visualization on the computer. I work on the computer every day with this stuff, and so getting out of that and really doing something with my hands. I have a background in ceramics, so I was a ceramics instructor at a day camp for six years. So working with clay, or at least a clay like substance is something that came really naturally to me. And I wanted to explore data in a physical form. So I thought about doing legos and bringing that child like wonder, but that felt, legos felt too constricting, like the idea of doing something with blocks. I wanted to be more creative than that. And so Day Doh Vis was born, doing something child like that anyone could sort of do but expanding into this three dimensional how do I do data with it? And it was fun to do it in a physical form and do it every day but also quite challenging. - So the plan was for it to be like a real daily practice right? Why was that an important part of the idea? - Yeah, I think it was just the constraint of doing something daily, you get better at it, you have to do it 100 times. And it also limits the amount of time you can spend on it. You can't be perfect and perfect everything because you have a limited amount of time you have to get it out there. So you can't spend 10 hours on it, they have to be like short, quick things. So it started out daily, however as the project evolved, coming up with the concept and cleaning data and spending time to visualize it took more time than I expected. And to get a really great product of something that I felt was interesting but also it seemed like other people felt was interesting it became less than daily. So I kept it up weekly, sort of got it to monthly. So it's something I do occasionally now. But it was really fun, if it had never been for the 100 day project, I never would've started doing this. I never would've gotten that push to do something and to get out of my comfort zone to do something like this. - So I guess the next question is, what do you think you learned? Obviously we're here teaching people how to do stuff, that's the goal of this course. Teaching a lesson on a theme, then interviewing someone on that theme. So the goal is of course to teach people. But you learned stuff during this process, right? And I would love to know what do you think you learned by doing that project every day and really working through those issues on your own? - I learned that data vis is just an abstraction of data. All data vis is you're taking this concrete number and you're making it into a representation of something else. So it was really interesting to take that to a more extreme level. But also in some way to a less abstract level. So sometimes I was working with different chunks of clay and then molding them or different types of Play-Doh and then molding them together to create this other form. So you could see where this shape came from and how it got its size, because it was all of these other chunks together. So I learned that it was also interesting to play with things in the three dimensions. We always hear that being a data vis practitioner, you hear that 3D pie charts are terrible and you should never do 3D data vis. But actually doing it in three dimensions I think was a challenge for me and a challenge to make something interesting that worked in three dimensions. And I think most of the time I was successful. I did make an exploding 3D pie chart that may be a bit controversial. And so some statistics classes have been using Play-Doh as one of their intro lessons to teach this concept of abstraction. And I think there's also some way that you could do it with younger kids to show how graphs are born, there are these little chunks combined to make something more abstract. - Yeah, I get it. Was the regularity of the work an important part of that? In some other words, you can do something a bunch of times, that's called practice, but doing it every single day, doing it on a regular basis, was that a really important part of the process for you? - Was the daily part of the practice an important part? Did that teach me something? I think it taught me to get out of my head a little bit, that I don't have to be this perfectionist about it. With data, there's always this level of precision that you need to do. Accuracy, because you're taking these numbers and if you show things that are imprecise, it can be misleading. With Play-Doh, I was never going to be precise. So I had to do things quick and I couldn't achieve that level of precision. So doing things daily got me out of my head. I just had to do it and it didn't matter as much. And it also allowed me to play with data that I might I used that imprecision to my benefit. I played with data that I might not have normally shown. I did a lot about my finances and I did one about my husband and my finances. Which you don't want to be telling the world how much money you make, that's not something we do. And putting it out on the internet. But because it was this "Oh I make three blobs of Play-Doh "and he makes like four," it felt easier to do. So I used that to my advantage. - Very good idea. I really like that. And how about now? What are you working on now that we might keep an eye out for in the future? - So, I'm really excited about the Data Visualization Society, it's really taken off. We're up to almost 10,000 members. We're officially a non-profit in the United States, and we're filing for charitable status. We have a board of directors. So it started out as me, Elijah, and Molly, and it was the three of us doing a lot of work. We have a board of directors now, so there's 11 of us, the work has gotten spread out a little bit more, and we each all have our own committees now with volunteers. Everything, all of Data Visualization Society is volunteer. So we have committee members, so that's helping take some of the load off. The more we can spread out this work, the easier it's become. I think being part of the community and formalizing the data visualization community for people entering the field is really important. It's something I was around when I started as a graphic designer but not something I didn't have that community behind me as I transitioned to doing more data vis and had a hard time finding it. So, if there's a community already built and people who are starting out can tap into that and get started and some of those resources and questions answered quicker, I'm really happy that that's what we're doing. And I'm working to start a mentorship program that's going to launch early next year. - That's very cool. Is there anything else you'd like to share with our audience about that daily practice, side projects, doing these kinds of things for practice? I know you did a really cool series of visualizations for your wedding. Did something come out of that that was really interesting, or another side project that you've worked on that you can share with us? - So, yes. The wedding data visualization just won an Information is Beautiful award in the unusual category. I'm really excited about that. I did that with my husband. It was a very fun collaboration. He was more of the data side, I was more of the visualization side, so we both got to work. It played to both of our skill sets. So it's actually my second Information is Beautiful award, or my third Information is Beautiful award, second in the unusual category, which I'm really excited about. I don't really think of myself as making unusual visualizations, but apparently I do. I'm weird, according to the norm. But I really like creating bespoke data visualizations. I like to push the boundaries of how people think about data. And so I definitely see myself doing more of that and more one off custom projects. Data visualization for me sometimes helps me work through things. Because I get to see it all laid out. So I do some personal ones, so that was the wedding vis, some of the Play-Doh data vis were personal visualizations. So I just bought a house, and I did a ton of renovation on it, and it's both been super stressful, it's sucked up a bunch of my financial and time resources. So I'm going to plan on doing a visualization around that once I get out of this hole and have more time and energy. So, I've been pulling the data, in general, pulling data together and visualizing it helps me make sense of those crazy things in my life. So I can see it and better understand it and hopefully it might give perspective to other people too. - Well that sounds like a super cool project. So did you go into the move and the renovations knowing you wanted to turn it into a project or was it purely after the fact? Because I imagine gathering data after a process like that is very hard. It's obviously easier to go into something knowing that you want to collect data and make it into a project. But how did that actually work? - So, I actually did not collect most of this data. I did not plan that well ahead to do this while all the rest of the crazy was happening in my life. So I'm going to do it after the fact. I was too stressed to do it and add one more thing to my life. But I have a great calendar of what contractors came when and everything that I was doing. I also have receipts and financial records so I can pull from there. I think it would've been interesting to add something like FitBit data, and how much I was sleeping or actually not sleeping during this crazy time. But, some of that is just passively collected. There's just so much of that data that's passively collected on you nowadays, I can tap into a lot of that and just pull what I need. There's also things that maybe in retrospect I would've set up like a reminder on my phone to track my daily stress level and that could've been interesting to see too. So maybe for another project, another stressful event in my life I will do something like that. But it helps me to take a break from everything once it's settled down, and then have a period where I go back and analyze things and so I can make sense of them. I can see what decisions I would change, or what really happened with the perspective of hindsight instead of just being in the madness. - That's great, that's a very cool story. Thank you very very much Amy for sharing with us. I think our audiences are really going to get a lot of insight from you. And the importance of daily practice, the importance of practice in general is well worth sharing, and I love that they have your example to follow. So thank you very much for talking to me here today. - Yeah, thank you so much for having me on. It was great to talk through some of my work and some things I'm looking forward to and I'm done with the daily stress of trying to create Play-Doh projects. But it was a kick that got me started doing something bigger, so I'm really excited and happy that I did it.