My data journey
Data are everywhere. They are not only linked to numbers, but to everything we are exposed to. Data live in a conversation that we have with a friend, or in a map we look at when we are trying to find the closest metro station. Data are relevant because we rely on them to make decisions, solve many kinds of problems, view issues from a different perspective, challenge preconceived notions, and find answers to every-day questions. Unfortunately, data are not always properly organized and, when they are, they are frequently presented in an uninviting way.
Academic experts, statisticians, and scholars, usually organize empirical evidence to communicate a message or to inform. Frequently, these experts fail at conveying their ideas and at explaining what they mean because they lack the ability to make the message appealing, they do not know how to turn complex data into something beautiful, or they do not understand why visuals matter. They are so focused on the integrity and technicality of the information that they forget about making the message informative or persuasive.
On the other hand, for most people, the arts are usually more engaging and sometimes more abstract. A work of art does not necessarily deliver a structured or concise message, but is usually open to the interpretation of the person who engages with it. The same musical composition, for example, can evoke different emotions in different people.
While I think of data as order, I link the field of the arts to chaos. This is because when I think of data, I relate it to organization, structures, rules, and working within certain constraints. To me, art means getting lost in the creative process to produce something beautiful. Art is directly related to one’s feelings –whether one is producing it or consuming it–, is more impulsive and intuitive, and pushes one to think out of the box. In the same way that experts should not entirely rely on data to explain complex issues, we should not only rely on the aesthetics of art to spark people’s interest. In between these two worlds, chaos and order, there is a place of moderation where the beauty found in art meets cold, rational data.
At the age of nine, I got exposed to music theory for the first time. I learned the foundations of melody, rhythm, harmony, tonal systems, etc. But it wasn’t until I started studying the violoncello eight years later that I realized the importance of connecting those foundations with the music and playing with feeling and soul to bring the most beautiful sound out of the cello. In a way, classical music was my first love of art.
In 2010, while I was studying economics in my home country of Argentina, my macroeconomics professor told me that a good economist, “feels the numbers and makes them speak.” This idea revolutionized my perspective of data, and made me apply for a research intern position at one of the most important think tanks in Argentina, Fundación Libertad. There, I got exposed for the first time to data collection, cleaning, and processing. In 2015, I moved to Washington, DC to work as a research assistant at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. Three years later, I went back to school to get a Master in Data Science at George Washington University. At Cato, I got exposed to larger amounts of data that I had to present in a visual and compelling way, while in school I learned how to automate processes to analyze, present, and model data using different programming languages.
It was then that I realized the importance of beauty and the role it plays when presenting data. We do not only need to make numbers speak, but also to make them beautiful.
In 2018, a colleague of mine and I implemented data visualization guidelines to improve the quality of data visualization, create a more appealing experience for the reader, and to more effectively communicate the Cato Institute’s message. I also became the book and data visualization designer of Cato’s best-selling book, Ten Global Trends, and of Cato’s most cited report, the Human Freedom Index. For the latest edition of the report, I redesigned all the figures and tables by following some of the best practices for data visualization. The report contains two pages of detailed data for each of the 165 countries analyzed. I combined my programming skills (Python), and design skills (Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop) to create 324 country pages. This has sped up the publication process and we are now able to lay out the report in one month. In 2019, I also began giving talks on how to create effective data visualizations, how data visualization can help statisticians interpret machine learning results, and how think tanks should approach data visualization.
Over the last few years, I have realized that beauty not only impacts the way we feel, but can also change the way we behave. This is why I believe that the visual content in any publication should play an important role in what the author wants to communicate.