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  • Writer's pictureSimon Beaumont

Giving the H2O down on my IronViz submission

Before I dive in (sorry, the first sentence and already I am up to two bad water related puns, please don’t reach for the X just yet) I wanted to take a moment to thank Patrick Byrne. If it wasn’t for Patrick reaching out on Twitter and encouraging me to put my IronViz reflections down on paper this blog post would still be waiting to make a splash (seriously, it is better to stop counting at this point!).

What IronViz means to me

Everyone has their own take on IronViz and reason for participating; for me it is an opportunity to stretch my skills and dedicate time to a viz that utilises techniques from across the Tableau community that have inspired me.

Within my professional life use of Tableau is centred around business dashboards and helping users gain insight from their data; whilst I absolutely love what I do, the use of Tableau in a business setting does tend to lend itself to a certain style of data visualisation. Most visualisations are fixed size, most utilise a corporate template and colour palette and almost all are driven by a specific question or scenario.

When I turn the laptop on during my commute home I want to take myself out of the ‘9 to 5’ and unleash my inner data artist; a long form visualisation, creative use of colour, innovative chart types, the list could go on and on. In short, IronViz gives me the perfect challenge to dive in and explore this different world of data visualisation.

Choosing a topic – My inspiration

I recently shared a blog post reflecting on my first 100 Tableau Public visualisations and the common theme throughout the post was I often produce my most creative and engaging visualisations when analysing data relating to a personal passion. This was my starting point for choosing my IronViz topic and for those of you who know me well one of my passions is snorkelling.

Taking the concept of snorkelling I came up with 2 potential topics; Coral Reefs and Whale Sharks. Both topics had potential ways to inspire and connect with creative data visualisations, the colours of Coral Reefs, the unique markings on a Whale Shark and both topics had a potential call to action; Coral Reefs are under threat and Whale Sharks are few in number and need our protection.

So how did I decide on which topic to choose? It came down to available data, and on that front Coral Reefs were the obvious choice thanks to the amazing work done by non-profit organisations to collect data about the world’s reefs. If you are intrigued to find out more then check out or just look out for the two #BaldiesDoData at #TC18 whose conversations normally sway towards snorkelling and scuba diving when they bump into each other (that would by myself and Paul Banoub).

My design approach and associated Tableau tips

My first design choice was to make a long form visualisation; I knew I wanted to mimic the sea and to give the appearance of my viz sitting underwater. This design choice formed the basis for my visualisation, the colour, the imagery and the flow.

Imagery and colours

To give the appearance of my visualisation sitting underwater I searched the web for wave images, specifically ones that had a solid, single, colour at the bottom of the image. This allowed me to place the wave image at the top of my visualisation and then use the solid colour as the background colour for the remainder of the visualisation.

For those of you who haven’t explored embedding imagery in your viz I thoroughly recommend checking out Joshua Milligan’s VizPainter blog and searching for an outstanding selection of potential images to choose from.

Circular ‘globe’ maps

When searching for Coral Reef data I was fortunate enough to find some amazing data sets that contained the geographical location of many of the Coral Reefs around the world. This was all the excuse I needed to attempt a technique inspired by the data Van Gogh of Yorkshire, Jonni Walker.

Earlier in the year I had been fortunate enough to listen to Jonni speak at the UK Health TUG during which he shared how he creates maps that are ‘framed’ using transparent shapes. The effect is outstanding and I doubt Jonni’s work needs much introduction but if you haven't done so yet make sure you check out Jonni’s Tableau Public page, but be warned you may well be still looking at it hours later!

For my custom framed maps I wanted to visualise the Coral Reef locations for each of the world’s regions, I wanted the maps to be circular, mimicking the appearance of a globe and for the maps to flow using some kind of water imagery.

With this in mind I set about creating my custom maps

- Using PowerPoint I created a square that was coloured the same blue as the background in my visualisation. Next, I embedded a black circle in the middle of the square and saved the image.

- The final step in PowerPoint was to edit the colour of the black circle to make that element of the custom shape transparent. To do this I edited the image by using the PowerPoint Picture Tools menu to set the black of the circle as a transparent colour.

- Having saved this transparent version as a PNG I then imported it into Tableau and placed it over the top of each map.

- The last step for the maps was to then overlay a PNG image downloaded from PNGTree.Com that gave the appearance of water and bubbles; be warned this bit did involve a fair bit of sizing and positioning to ensure the images correctly aligned.

The one downside of placing transparent images over maps is you lose any ability to hover over a map and view a tool tip; there are solutions to overcome this limitation and I explore these later in this post when I share things I would have done if I had more time.

Filter actions using Latitude

Coral Reefs a very fragile ecosystems that only exist within a narrow climate range. I wanted to visualise this within my visualisation to convey the important role countries and regions play in protecting their reefs.

The technique to visualise this was quite simple, a bar chart, right aligned to the edge of the screen; however the trick came in converting the latitude coordinates of each reef into integers.

This allowed for greater grouping of reef locations but, more importantly, also allowed for the circular maps to have a highlight action enabled, allowing the latitude bar to be clicked and the maps to highlight those reefs located on that latitude.

Thank you so much to Professor Klaus Schulte for helping me successfully implement this functionality; it wasn’t particularly complex but I had a severe case of ‘vizzers blindness’ when I forgot to add the int(lat) field to the maps as well as the bar chart and spent hours questioning why the highlight action would not work.

‘Bubble’ charts; no not the bad viz type ones!

Are you mad, I hear you say! You did a bubble plot in an IronViz entry? No! My IronViz bubble chart was a playful take on where Coral Reefs designated as tourist areas were located around the world.

I found an image of a Scuba Diver and immediately knew I wanted to incorporate the image into my visualisation. I achieved this by using the illusion of air bubbles, coming from the diver’s mouthpiece, with the air bubbles actually representing the location of tourist reefs using a map with the background image removed.

To create the illusion of air bubbles I designed a dual axis chart, with both axis referencing the geo coordinates of the tourist reefs. I then sized the primary and secondary marks cards differently and coloured using a two-tone blue.

Yes, you could argue this chart type was more style over substance, however I would argue it is important to maximise engagement from start to finish of a long form viz and I felt the ‘bubble chart’ achieved this. It hopefully made you want to dive further into the detail and hover over the bubbles to find out what they related to.

If I had more time…

The one element of my visualisation that I would happily go back and improve, if I had more time, is enabling interactivity on my circular maps. Something Chris Dickson rightly suggested when giving me feedback. The way I would have achieved this is probably quite inefficient and I would really appreciate hearing from anyone who has a better way of achieving this!

My circular maps were created using a custom MapBox design and as such contained a patterned background as opposed to a solid colour. If the maps had contained a solid colour I simply could have created a square with the same background colour as the map, behind the transparent circle and then brought the map to the front, sizing the sheet to fit within the confides of the circle.

To achieve this same effect with a patterned background would have taken more time; I would have had to size the map to fit into the confides of the circle, created an image of how this appeared on screen, and then replaced the transparent shapes and images with this new image. I could then have brought the map to the front and aligned it to the background image so the patterns of the map and the background image perfectly aligned.

Using both techniques the tooltips of the sheets would then have been enabled due to the maps being at the front of the workbook; however alas, something had to give in my design process and I simply ran out of time.

Getting feedback

For me, one of the most inspiring aspects of IronViz is the willingness of community members to provide feedback on your visualisation. If you had asked me 2 years ago if I would be messaging people to ask for feedback on a visualisation I had created I would have dismissed you instantly. The process would have been alien to me; why would I want to open myself up to criticism? Why would anyone take time out of their day to comment on a visualisation of mine? Oh, how the Tableau Community has opened my eyes and changed my perception of feedback.

During the development of my IronViz I was fortunate to receive rich and diverse feedback. Thanks goes out to everyone who gave me feedback, you know who you are, however a particular person warrants a special mention.

The late-night twitter conversation with Sam Parsons will live long in my memory. Not only did Sam meticulously test pretty much every element of my viz, he also took time to help me completely redevelop the tree-map section. Thank you Sam for your idea of the histogram style inclusion of observations over time and simplifying the colour palette to only two colours. I really hope you enjoyed that beer we spoke about when we eventually finished the conversation at nearly midnight!

And finally…

It would be remiss of me to end this IronViz reflection without reference to the incredibly high standard of submissions for this feeder and all the 2018 feeders. On a personal note, what was truly inspirational was the amount of new talent on show, people who stepped into IronViz after only a handful of published visualisations. I cannot express how much I admire your commitment, your courage and your talent.

My completed water IronViz is below, simply click on the image to view it via Tableau Public.

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