On this week’s episode of the show, I chat with Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic from Storytelling with Data to talk about the recent Tapestry Conference held in Miami, FL. A day-and-a-half of great talks and great people, Tapestry is a small conference with a big impact. After the final keynote, Cole and I sat down and chatted about our favorite talks, big topics, and some of the presentation techniques we observed.

Episode Notes

Tapestry Conference Website | Videos of talks

Storytelling with Data website

Elijah Meeks, 3rd Wave Data Visualization (Medium)

#TapestryConf on Twitter

Elijah Meeks on the PolicyViz Podcast

Cole on the PolicyViz Podcast


Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode I am going to recap the recent Tapestry Conference that took place in Miami, Florida and to help me do so I am very happy to have Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic from Storytelling with Data on the show with me.

Before I get to the recording of our discussion just a quick reminder, if you are interested in supporting the show please consider being a Patreon supporter. You can help me cover costs of editing, recording equipment, transcription and the web service fees and also if you interested in winning a copy of Cole’s book, Andy Kirk’s book, book by Tukey, and a book by Naomi Robbins I am holding a little fun contest on the site if you write a quick Amazon review of my book Better Presentations I’ll enter you in a raffle to win one of those packs of books. I’ll sent to you at the end of the month. So, you can check out the show notes and my blog for more information on that. So, onto the show.

Jon Schwabish: Okay. Tapestry Miami.

Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic: Yes.

JS: *** [inaudible 0:01:23] your time?

CNK: It was fantastic.

JS: It was, wasn’t it?

CNK: Yeah. I feel super energized. The chatter at the end of the day, like you know it’s been a good conference when it’s over and people are still handing out.

JS: They don’t want to leave the room?

CNK: Yeah.

JS: Yeah. It was good. So, Tapestry has always been like 100 people max or so and we’ve each been to a few of these, and some of the previous ones have been – they kind of put them in these boutique hotels and the rooms kind of feel a little small and intimate.

CNK: Cozy, yeah.

JS: Cozy which is nice but also this was sort of in a bigger room, and I felt like…

CNK: I think there was more interaction because of it.

JS: Yeah, I did too.

CNK: The space afforded people to move around in a way that wasn’t possible last year, for example.

JS: Which is weird, because you think like an intimate space would be more intimate. But I felt like with the big Havener sort of auditorium that people did interact a lot more.

CNK: And somehow it made people more likely to switch chairs and sort of move around over the course of the day, where people weren’t just stuck in one spot.

JS: Right. We don’t need to go through every talk, because no one would listen to that.

CNK: When they can watch all the videos.

JS: They can watch all the videos, so I’ll put links to everything when the videos come out. But the program started on Thursday, so they also added a half day which they haven’t done in the past. So, the event started on Thursday at 1:00 with Mona Chalabi from The Guardian – Data Guardian. You want to talk about her talk first, and then…

CNK: Yeah. You’ll provide links I’m sure for folks to be able to checkout her work. But I think something that’s unique about Mona is the hand-drawn style, right? And probably people are familiar with some of the stuff that she’s done over the years, but I thought it was interesting because part of her talk about – and we touched on uncertainty in the number of the talks but the hand-drawn aspect of it helps you convey some of this less precision in a way that can actually be useful because it takes people away from the numbers and gets them to focus on what they’re looking at.

JS: Right. Do you think that’s true? I agree. We saw uncertainty a lot in the last couple of days like…

CNK: Yeah, and in very different ways.

JS: Right.

CNK: It’s not uncertainty so much as precision, right?

JS: Yes, right.

CNK: Because in the hand-drawn because of the way the axis is around the side it might be – you see the ups and downs but you don’t necessarily tie them to a specific number in a way that we do…

JS: She also doesn’t – and Mona *** [inaudible 0:03:45] she also didn’t show any examples where she drew like a bar-chart with a rectangle.

CNK: That’s true, with all different…

JS: But she used shapes or icons, so that looks like a rounded – it’s a rounded edge at the end. So, it’s not exactly like oh you know that vertical line at the end of the rectangles where that points.

CNK: When it doesn’t make you in the same way act, I don’t think you want to follow your finger across and figure out where it has been accessed, because you don’t sort of have the right benchmark to be able to do that. But one of her interesting points really on it was how you want to associate your audience with the topic, so that if they look at the graph or the picture that they get a sense of what it’s going to be about because they actually read any of it.

JS: Right, which is interesting it made me think at the end of the day because Elijah Meeks’s talk – we’ll talk about in a little bit, he made a point in that talk sort of lamenting the – I don’t remember what he called, but sort of like the drive pie-chart, you know that flies by on Twitter that’s like oh I am supposed to get it in a second. He kind of lamented that that’s the thing, but that’s kind of Mona’s whole thing, right?

CNK: I actually don’t know. I don’t know if the goal is speed there go, which was I think what Elijah’s beef was with this that? We prioritize that or everything else too often, but more the human connection piece of the – you see something and you’re sort of intrigued and she showed some really interesting let’s say visuals, right? At one point I am just going to say we had gigantic drawn bolts on the screen and they made sense in context but she does these things that she is not afraid to push boundaries and it’s really interesting. She mentioned that number of times how she is really interested in the body and bodily functions and yeah starts with penises and a pie-chart of rectal bleeding I remember that.

JS: And someone vomiting I think. There was a line chart of vomit or something. Yeah, I mean the thing that she also does really well is actually finds data that sort of different and that she mines like the CDC website, and she finds stuff that’s publicly just there. she is just finding that which I think is probably characteristic of certainly a good journalist and also probably good data visualizer or data analyst.

CNK: Yeah that was interesting to get insight into her design thought process and how she comes out of multiple different ways. She talked about that and she also talked about the case she’ll have an idea for something but then need to go after data that will help her make real that idea, which is a different way of looking about it.

JS: She also talked about this and I am sure you did *** [inaudible 0:06:20]. She also talked about this process that she has that when she’ll make something, and then she’ll show it to friends.

CNK: Yes. Actually that was fascinating and feel like people were taking a ton of notes during that piece of it, because she said she has six friends that are on a common thread or a text message, and that she always shows them things early on where she gets something up she has committed a tone of times but to be able to get that gut reaction is like either yeah that’s going to make sense or no it doesn’t or not this is way too much I guess.

JS: Yeah, this is way too much. I mean I think that’s like a – if I were to come out to work on Monday and someone said what is the one thing that we should really want that might be it for me is to say look don’t make your graphs in isolation just because you as a researcher or analysts whatever, make your graph put on the paper, and then the editor cleans it up or whatever, and then your web team looks at it like show it to other people and see if they get. I think that is a bit step that people don’t do, right? I am sure I know I don’t do that at all.

CNK: Yeah and it’s one of things that feel like we would say it, it sounds really obvious, right? But when you make the graph you know what the graph says because you made the graph, and so there’s such value again.

JS: I mean it’s simple like a simple line chart you know there is a line, there is a spike somewhere and you’ve seen it million times, and sort of blind to it, and then you show it to person next door and they’re like why this thing? Anyway I thought that was *** [inaudible 0;07:47].

CNK: I think that can also help point out – she mentioned a couple of times how she got it wrong, right? Where it was misinterpretation of the data or there are some other issue and you know especially if it’s in a field that’s not something you’re familiar with it’s really easy to misinterpret data and to have ways of being able to check that with other people.

JS: Yeah. I mean that’s a double edged sword the work she does, right?

CNK: Yes.

JS: So, she find this really unique dataset, and then she visualizes it, but she might not be as familiar with it, and there may not be the obvious person to call to say can you help me with this throwing up after the night of being at the bar, data like yeah. So, Mona kick things off, and then what Tapestry has done – the whole series is have these what they call short stories, so they are 15-20 minute talks and that’s what we have for the next four speakers on Thursday or *** [inaudible 0:08:44] just scooped up from Emma I’ve talked about some research they were doing. Jason Forrest talked about some research he was doing on W.E.B Du Bois, and then Ken Field from Esri talked about Cartography of Elections. That was the one for me that stood out for couple of reasons one being that – I am not cattographer by any means, and like this challenge of mapping is such a big question in my mind of how we get people to understand.

CNK: Because there is such value because it’s not something that people are familiar with, but then it can be sort of misinterpreted or not…

[Crosstalk 0:09:19]

JS: Yeah, and these distortions by the geography. I think I like glanced it like once but really looked at it and he has this collection of election maps on one page – election maps in the U.S. and just seeing all of them put next to each other and I just wonder about these cattograms which we know are truer to the data in some way, but not as recognizable that’s the *** [inaudible 0:09:45] data.

CNK: And I thought he showed some interesting examples that where he starts with the thing that is recognizable, but then shifts it into some of these other variants of that that are truer to the data that we still are able to connect it to some sense of what their geographical underpinnings are.

JS: Right. Just *** [inaudible 0:10:03] maps are the tools drive lot of decisions that Elijah make as we don’t have a cartography background things like – okay so Tableau or Datawrapper or whatever the tool you’re using is like that’s the projection, okay that projection must be right but it’s one of the things that it might not be right or it might not be the best projection most of us are thinking about it you know?

CNK: Yeah.

JS: But I liked his talk. I thought that was a great talk. Did you have one in this group that you really liked?

CNK: Yeah. So, actually the one that we ended the day with, Jonni Walker who is a senior data analyst or senior data artist at Tableau presented a section on or a presentation on the Kakapo, which is this rare bird in New Zealand and it was interesting for me not topically at all. I actually don’t care at all about this bird. It’s green, and cute and fluffy and it’s sad that the population is dwindled. I am a little empathetic but outside of that this is not going to be something that I am like listening to because I deeply care about this topic. But Jonni so clearly, deeply cares about this topic that passion was contagious in a way that I was so engaged to him as a presenter, and so for me it opened up this interesting idea of – the data is one piece of it, being able to communicate well with data, you communicate *** [inaudible 0:11:24] all these things that we’ll talk about or people talked about at the conference. But there is this whole other piece that is the person who is presenting the data which I think we can think about in our lives adding like we saw here but the way that you present also clearly when it comes to if you’re sending something around, *** [inaudible 0:11:39] play around it, the words you play around it. But I thought that was just a good reminder that if you can tap into your passion when you’re presenting in a way that it gets other people’s attention that can be a really useful thing for communicating more effectively the data.

JS: Absolutely, and it’s tough I think for a lot of people because when you are talking about health care costs or revenue projections like it’s hard to be enthusiastic about some of that stuff, right?

CNK: And then that’s where I think it’s on the onus of us, right, the people who are looking for data or we’re communicating data to figure out why is it interesting? If you can’t figure that out there is no way you can get the audience interested about it, and we saw example of that.

JS: Right. So, Jonni did the last talk and then there was an hour of demos. Did you go to any of the demos?

CNK: You know I popped around a little bit, but I didn’t spend too much time.

JS: So, I’ll just say the one that I went to and I wanted to make sure I checked out was Matthew Bremer. He is from Microsoft. He and Bongshin Lee, and one other person whose name I am forgetting had this new tool called Charticulator and I am not quite sure how you feel about the name, but it’s a tool in the browser where you sort of like combining illustration and data binding, and it was just interesting I’ve only played with it a little bit online and there are some videos but it’s really – usually is to talk to someone and watch someone who has created something showed you first person how it works which is really – it’s not just cool to see it, but it’s like also a great…

CNK: It’s a different experience.

JS: It’s a different experience and like you see is enthusiasm for it, someone who built. Okay, so that was day-1, day-2 we came back 9:00 am kicking off with Matthew Kay who is an Assistant Professor at University of Michigan talking about uncertainty.

CNK: Yeah, Matt was what you call a biased tour of the uncertainty visualization zoo, and a ton of great examples because I think he came back to this idea that’s been I feel like repeated a lot lately that is probably not quite right, which is that we don’t have good way of uncertainty because he chonered that with – there are actually ways of showing uncertainty that can be intuitive for people who just haven’t been good at showing uncertainty that way historically, and so he talked about some specific and showed us specific examples of how you can do that and some of the ways they found to be able to show uncertainty in ways that people get it. Right. And showed us some places where that doesn’t happen and why that is. Specifically we were looking at icon arrays or continuous data into one tile dot plot and getting that right.

JS: Yeah and sort of strip plot sort of thing.

CNK: Like it was interesting this idea that people can you know if it’s small numbers or small multiples, if it’s three or five that we know what that number is when we see three circles or five circles without having to count.

JS: Yeah. He had a term for that.

CNK: Supertizing.

JS: Yeah, supertizing. So, I feel like I’ve seen Matt *** [inaudible 0:14:42] use that same word, so that’s like I am going to get the teacher *** [inaudible 0:14:46], yeah. But the thing that popped to my mind is, as I was watching that talk which I really liked was he talked about how we want to try to get the consumer of the visualization to understand uncertainty, and I also wonder whether we should be talking more about the producer of the graph. I am sure there are lot of people out there who are making graphs with data and they are not thinking about the distribution or the percentiles or the just the underlying uncertainty of the data that they’re using. Maybe that’s a bigger nut to crack?

CNK: Yeah. I think so, and there were question on that; what do I do when my manager asks me for a number or the person that I am giving it to they need a yes or no of do we make this decision, and how it’s unfair in a lot of ways to try to boil it down to that or it’s misleading potentially in big ways that are important. Yeah, it was a lot of good food for thought.

JS: Yeah, absolutely. So, I wanted to take a pause before we went to the next talk because something happened at the end of Matt’s talk that struck me – and I know that you’ve been thinking about as well, so at the end of Matt’s talk he had this great slide that summarized the whole talk, it was like two phrases, it was great, and then he clicked over to the…

[Crosstalk 0:16:00]

CNK: For a second, and then yeah.

JS: It wasn’t the ‘thank you’ slide. It’s like the…

[Crosstalk 0:16:03]

CNK: …off the phone.

JS: And he clicks to the ‘thank you’ slide and bunch of us are saying no Matt just go back one slide, right? *** [inaudible 0:16:11] and so I sort of made a snarky tweet that you know let’s end on the…

CNK: On the summary.

JS: …on the summary slide, right. And so he and I were sort of talking later and he made a totally valid point which is I feel as an academic he felt obligated to thank his colleagues.

CNK: Yeah, it’s obvious sort of…

JS: And also if you have funders like you might have to thank your funders. My recommendation was okay so get to the ‘thank you’ slide, and then go back to the previous one.

CNK: Yeah. That’s what I find – I do that a lot or have started doing that, especially bigger presentations, right? Where you know you’re going to go into some sort of Q&A after that where you give your ending, you do the thank you, you let there be the clear sort of end, and then you flip to the next slide.

JS: You go back, yeah.

CNK: But it is the key.

JS: Yeah, and then you have 15 minutes, so that thing is sitting up there, right?

CNK: Exactly.

JS: But I also wanted to talk to you about some of the presentation things you saw because we’ve been sort of chatting about this on and off, and so what were some of the highlights and low-lights of presentation styles that you saw?

CNK: Yeah. That’s a great question, you know I talked about it a little bit with Jonni and so enthusiasm and passion is really one of the highlight things that I think – that contributed to all of what I would consider the standout talks from what we saw. Something else that I think is a lot more nuanced is in how the person presenting honors the audience. In terms of being aware who the audience is, but also not making assumptions about them that might very well be wrong. I think counter to that were things that I saw that felt a little off putting is somebody introduced something as if it were new and the first time it had ever been seen before when it was already part of the data visualization that we’ve all probably seen many times.

JS: It’s actually dishonoring.

CNK: Yeah, and so that felt like it wasn’t honoring who the audience is. Whereas, Matt – actually I wrote it down because I thought it was – oh he did this brief interlude to teach us a bit about Bayesian statistics and he started off by saying if you’re familiar I’m going to give you a quick tour, if you are bear with me for a minute, and so that was such…

JS: It’s really nice.

CNK: Like such a nice thing I feel like hey I get it, we’ve got a mixed audience with people who come in with different knowledge of statistics. I’m going to go through this for the benefit of those who don’t know, if you already do it’s just going to take a second, so…

JS: It’ll take a second, you just chill out go eat something, yeah.

CNK: And he did variants of that a number of times and that other did as well but I thought he did particularly effective job to do that, where there were cases where he’d say something like you know I don’t have evidence for this but I suspect. He is very careful in his word choices, and being precise in his talk.

JS: Yeah, which I think comes from him being an academic, doing research, and that’s sort of like probably part of his DNA. And he thinks he saw that struck he is like okay there is a reason why I am just not as – not loving…

CNK: Engaged.

JS: Yeah, not engaged.

CNK: Yeah, there definitely were moments where I was feeling less engaged, and I think the commonality is self-deprecation, I don’t understand why this is the thing that people do and I see it more in women I don’t know why that is. But apologizing for things that there is no reason to apologize for, and so don’t do that.

JS: Yeah. That was a big one for me it’s like oh I am sorry you know this slide is washed out or you know oh I’ve just put this together which I don’t think happened here but like before [crosstalk 0:19:28] just like it sets it up and like it’s a first impression is like this negative connotation, and I just sort of feel like you can’t control the projector, so the projector was a little washout for everybody, you can’t control it. So, just power through, but that being said I think the talks on the whole were all fantastic, so I don’t want to add too much negativity here because I think they all were great. But I know we were sitting there talking about these in interest of both of us, so I just *** [inaudible 0:20:02]. Okay, so after Matt kicked off we had another set of short stories. One by Kristin Henry at Datablick on color, one by Bill Shander on using words in visuals and he took them an art graphic and he sort of pulled it apart which is really the – Nadia Popovich from The New York Times, so she talked about Personalizing Climate Change, and then Alex Wein from Bugcrowd where he talked about charts at linguistics and data all which I thought were really interesting.

CNK: Yeah. Those were interesting.

JS: We had lunch and then we had an hour of – now it depends on how you say this but there is Pecha Kucha or Pecha-Kucha, and there is one other pronunciation that I am not going to…

CNK: Yeah, I am not even going to try.

JS: So, they are usually like a short talks. They are supposed to be I think…

CNK: Six minutes.

JS: …six minutes.

CNK: And 20 seconds or something.

JS: Yeah, some number of seconds per slide, anyway so I think what ended up happening was the organizers said…

CNK: Let’s do very quickly.

JS: Yeah, *** [inaudible 0:20:58] bunch of short talks, and they were bunch of – they were all really good. I think the one I think we wanted to just mention was Amanda Makulec’s talk.

CNK: Yeah. That was a standout one for me. Yours I’ll also mention because you and I have talked about this before I thought it was so neat to see it in person of this – you know the idea of a circular story based on the children and then you talk us through, and then you do it with the you know you heard a number that was great.

JS: With this yeah.

CNK: Amanda’s was very personal and she told us about a situation where she’s done some genetic testing and the process of getting the medical results from that or results from that back from her doctor, and how being someone who – she works even in the…

JS: Yeah, she does global health work – global public health and she and I were talking afterwards, she also has in mind which I think is, should be *** [inaudible 0:21:53] talk not only her reaction what she was saying about herself, but also she is thinking about people that she works with and communities around the world. I know she does a lot of work I think in Nigeria or *** [inaudible 0:22:09] or something like that, you know who don’t have the data literacy or the math background that she has.

CNK: And I think that was the point.

JS: Yeah.

CNK: If this feels this way for me and I do have this context how is this going to feel for somebody who doesn’t, and she talked about this interesting shift of going from being primarily the designer of the data to being the creator to the consumer.

JS: Consumer, yeah.

CNK: And the way that that makes her think about now how we create data. I thought it was amazingly brave to share that and she did it in such an effective way.

JS: And she did it – she like made the slides last night.

CNK: Yes.

JS: Like she put it together like the night before which is just amazing, and then finally we closed up with Elijah Meeks from Netflix, who was making this argument about what you call the Third Wave of Data Visualization sort of…

CNK: Yeah, that’s interesting.

JS: First wave being the…

CNK: Driven by Tufte.

JS: Tufte for 10, yeah, and then the second wave being sort of like the period directly after Tufte’s books, and then the third wave being what we’re experiencing now with the sort of…

CNK: Convergence.

JS: Convergence of the tools, yeah.

CNK: A lot sounds like it’s…

JS: Yeah, the convergence of these tools that yes there is High Charts, and there is Quadrigram, and there is Datawrapper but those tools will sit on the D3 framework, and then you know there is the power behind the Tableau but they are all behind dash-boarding tools, and so these classes was a nice…

CNK: What I thought was an interesting idea as well of the convergence not only of the tools or of the modes I think they also call them also convergence of the audiences in terms of their expectations what people doing data visualization are providing. I think it’s good food for thought.

JS: It was. I will say I was expecting more fireworks from Elijah given – he has some great posts and he is trying to churn some things up and have these debates and I felt a little more warm and fuzzy.

CNK: And I think actually he maybe have this thing because he made a comment expressing some of the sentiments that coming into this he thought he was going to be like the downer but that actually felt after having seen all of the other sessions that there were these common themes that came up in ways that were actually exciting and sort of…

JS: I think inspiring and – yeah I mean I think there is obviously a lot of great work going on, and lot of great work and talks that we saw.

CNK: Yeah, and I think it’s just a reminder of how important it is to step out of your work every now and again irrespective of what that looks, it doesn’t necessarily lead into a conference but there is one where there people will find inspiring that could be one level to it but step outside of your work, talk to other people who have complementary sort of – because that’s one interesting mix here is everybody sort of touches data visualization in some way or another, but we all come at it from very different pieces, right? There is the journalism side or academia or practitioner and the sort of conversations that – and I think that’s a big part, right? The conversations that you have outside of that because this for me is a very different conversation in coffee breaks where it’s not the networking where you work sort of conversations. It’s like meaningful conversations about all *** [inaudible 0:25:25]

JS: About the content you know about the work, yeah.

CNK: And which I think is really valuable.

JS: Yeah, I think for me personally I came to this conference with a specific goal in mind for myself. So, when I went to Info Plus few weeks ago in Germany I saw my pals, I saw Andy Kirk and I saw Nadieh Bermer and Mark Lambrex and like I hung out with them, and someone who make this like all kind of comment like oh you can get off your couch now and go meet some new people, right? And I’ve been thinking about that and I mean there are two sides to that, on the one hand like I don’t get to see Andy that often like once or twice a year, but on the other had like it is part of the conference experience to go meet people. So, when I came to Tapestry I made a conscious effort to go meet…

CNK: And one interesting thing because I get to raise the hands we would be getting more than half the people this was our first time.

JS: First time right. And so that was for me it was a conscious effort to try to engage in those conversations, and like I met the guy who does data viz at Universal Studios, I met this woman doing data visualization in Connecticut, and it wasn’t like you know deep conversations they were like…

CNK: No, but now you have those connections.

JS: Yeah, and it’s just like interesting to hear – because I think the other thing that I have read out of Elijah’s writing in the past is sort of West Coast Silicon Valley perspective and I definitely come – I am sure the stuff that I’m saying right comes at it from an economist researcher DC bubble perspective, right? And so, it’s nice to talk to someone from the Connecticut State Department of Health like what are their challenges that they are *** [inaudible 0:27:06].

CNK: Yeah. It helps us step outside of ourselves I think in ways that’s *** [inaudible 0:27:11].

JS: Yeah. It’s great. It’s great hanging out.

CNK: Yeah.

JS: I am lucky to hang out.

CNK: I know, right? For me this is my *** [inaudible 0:27:28] coming to see people, yeah.

JS: All right, cool. Thanks Cole.

CNK: Thanks.

Thanks for tuning in everybody. I hope you enjoyed that conversation between me and Cole about the recent Tapestry Conference. Please do checkout all the videos that are now posted online from the conference, see you can check those out along with some other blog posts and some Twitter threads about some of the conversations that took place, especially Elijah Meeks’s closing keynote. So, take a look at the show notes page, so you can learn more and check out all those links. So, until next time this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.