What can be achieved by collaboration?

At the start of the year were a lot of tweets, messages and blog posts covering predictions in data visualisation for the year ahead and people’s own resolutions for what they might do in a new and different way this year to develop their skills, experience and exposure. Personally, I ducked out of that approach, preferring shamelessly to focus on what a good 2016 I’d had instead. But many spoke of collaboration being a key topic for the year ahead. Projects where people would work and visualise together, or pool together thoughts, designs and technical tricks in order to get the perfect combination. Some predicted this would happen more, and others resolved to be part of this new way of working.

As projects grow in size and the community of data visualisers grows at pace, I’m starting to notice this already this year. Makeover Monday has been a huge success through 2016, with on average approximately 60 people submitting visualisations on the same dataset each week by the end of the year. But in 2017, the first three weeks already have seen well in excess of 400+ submissions alone. Opportunities for sharing and collaboration are growing as quickly as the project.

This week, our dataset looked at New Zealand tourism spend figures, in index form, from 2008-2016 domestically and internationally. Our data covered the 60+ Territorial Authorities, and after a quick perusal of the data I came up with one conclusion: regional breakdown, comparable figures in every region, never seen it done before … I’d create a New Zealand tile map. I’ve blogged here about tile maps and had plenty of fun creating them, so I set to work on Sunday and created my visualisation below.


I’m an early starter (it suits me to complete on Sunday as I will be much busier with work during the week) so mine was one of the first submissions. I was pleased with my effort but I think it was far from perfect. The tile maps worked well (or, they  worked the way I intended anyway). The colour scheme showed the regions as well as the Territorial Authorities, and my showing of monthly rather than yearly figures had two effects: (a) it showed all areas were somewhat seasonal but some much more than others, and (b) It meant it didn’t matter that 2016 figures were incomplete.

However there are some things I wasn’t pleased with. The overall colour scheme was eye-catching but somewhat quirky at best, with the lines looking like childish pen lines. The blocks to filter region in North or South Island worked and were functional, but the chart looked very busy. And generally I thought the whole thing was very unstylish (I know this is a particular weakness of mine).

I didn’t attempt to label each Territorial Authority on the map. Well, that’s not true, I did attempt, but with the long names for some areas and fiddliness of the task, I chose to remove the area labels and include them in tooltips and the rollover summary graph instead. And the colour scheme, though it did receive some compliments, will not have been to everyone’s taste – the colours were pinched from a London Underground colour palette (I can see UK readers having lightbulb moments here!). I kept in the regional regional breakdown as it was an important visual reference for me when creating the original tile map (see below – the aim to match left and right as close as possible whilst keeping the individual colours as true to their correct geographies as I can ). But was it necessary to keep the regional breakdown in or did it make the viz more complicated? Perhaps the latter, let’s just say I haven’t seen anyone else use the regional breakdowns yet.

The next day I saw the following submission (below) from Sumeet Bedekar. He posted his submission giving me full credit for the “design inspiration” (and crediting sirvizalot.com for the content/layout of the tiles). I don’t know Sumeet but he also participates in the Makeover Monday project. At first, I was torn between feeling a smidgen of unease that my tile map had been used, and delight that someone had chosen it. After all, in well over forty years on the planet I have never been anyone’s design inspiration in any way, shape or form! But within a matter of seconds, as soon as I looked in detail, any unease had dissipated to be replaced by satisfaction, and the delight remained.



So what did I like about it? Yes the tile map design is exactly mine and uses the “work” from me the previous day to set up multiple graphs in tile formation. But the colours from my original have gone to be replaced by a much more pleasing red/blue scheme. The blocks for filters at the top and bottom merge in seamlessly across the screen instead of sticking out in ugly fashion.  Showing each line in a box gives a lot more definition and outlines the country more clearly. There is far less clutter and it’s a far more aesthetically pleasing visualisation – great work, Sumeet!

There are still elements of my own that I preferred. i’m not sure of the validity of combining domestic and international tourism in one graph as a percent, it doesn’t feel to me like that’s a valid measure and it doesn’t show increase over time. And perhaps he’s gone a little too far in keeping it simple – there needs to be some way of understanding what the figures represent (clarify, don’t simplify!).

Then, a little later, but also on Monday I received a message from Sarah Bartlett – it seemed she wanted to use the tile map as design inspiration too! Her final visualisation is here:


Wow! This I really like. First of all – by now I’ve had a couple of hours to get used to being an influencer in the world of visualisation design, so this is old hat to me! If someone wants to use a snippet of my idea, I’m fine with that, so this time there was a bit of instant pride in seeing my own personal NZ map centre-stage for the third time. But everything else in the overall layout has taken my idea, and, like Sumeet, come up with something better and different! I tend to shy away from graphics and stylisation too much as it’s something I tend to struggle with, but it making the chart black with the subtle addition of just the Kiwi silver fern, we have a really elegant and NZ-branded visualisation. This confirms to me that it would have been easier than I thought to come up with something better than rainbow scribbles and grey text on a lime green background!

And in showing yearly, rather than monthly figures, we don’t see seasonal variation but we see increase over time more easily, and, whether by accident or design, each individual line chart resembles an ocean wave – perfect for the island geography and wild seas of New Zealand. To be critical – I think the upturn at the end of each line is due to incomplete 2016 figures skewing the averages up, which might need redressing (a point shared by Chris Love, in a further example of collaboration), but the visualisation would still look great if revised. Blue and orange are used to show decrease/increase since 2008, which I think is a better use of colour than dividing North and South island into its regions – used for insight rather than geography.

This might not be a true collaboration – after all, it’s three visualisations that were designed by three people. But the overall process feels like a collaboration of sorts that happened organically – I’m still really pleased with my original but feel that both Sumeet and Sarah took it up a notch and there are definitely elements of all three that I like. To frame it another way, I can claim credit for Sarah’s stylish visualisation which was beyond my means/creativity, because it couldn’t have been done without my tile map! There might well be a visualisation that combines the best bits of all three, or surpasses them all, but the nature of visualising with freely-available open data in a growing, proactive, online community which communicates, offers feedback and collaborates is sure to reap rewards and push standards higher. I’m looking forward to it.

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