Interview with data visualiser Ri Liu

Ri Liu, data visualiser at Pitch Interactive. Photo credit: Ri Liu

Good design is key when trying to tell stories in an interactive or visual way.

I spoke with Ri Liu from Pitch Interactive, an interactive and data visualization studio based in California. The studio is best known for its interactive detailing the victims of every known drone attack in Pakistan.

In her spare time, Ri recently created We Can Do Better, which is a visualisation of gender disparity in engineering teams in the tech industry. I was interested in how a reasonably simple data set could be made much more engaging through the visualisation.

Ri's We Can Do Better visualisation. Click the image for the full interactive version.
Ri’s We Can Do Better visualisation. Click the image for the full interactive version.

What was the inspiration for We Can Do Better?

It’s an ongoing issue in the tech industry and as a female in the industry I just asked myself ‘what can I do?’. It’s frustrating when you see this inequality and imbalance.

This data has actually been around for a little while now but in the form of a spreadsheet. It’s great and a lot of people have added to it, but it’s quite technical and has to be updated by submitting a pull request on GitHub.

So I thought, since I have the design and coding background and I’m in tech, maybe I could bring it to a wider audience.

I want to let people touch this information and engage with it, instead of seeing rows and rows on a spreadsheet.

It’s definitely a lot easier on the eyes.

Yeah. I’m glad it’s been shared a lot, and maybe different people and journalists can now engage with this data more easily than before.

The data in its much less engaging spreadsheet format. Click the image to see the full spreadsheet.
The data in its much less engaging spreadsheet format. Click the image to see the full spreadsheet.

Which tools do you use and how long did you spend on it?

I spent a few weekends on it and the visualisation itself is built using D3.

This project is actually on GitHub, I’ve put a creative commons license on it so anyone can look at the code.

Was it worth putting the the time into?

Definitely. Personally, I just wanted to see this data visualised. I’d seen these numbers but it wasn’t really connecting with it in a meaningful way.

I didn’t expect for it to be tweeted around as much, but that’s been really awesome.

How easy would you say it is for someone to learn to use D3?

It’s definitely not the easiest tool to get started with, but once you do get a grasp of it it’s incredibly powerful. When you want to do something you’re not limited by the code at all, so you’re able to say ‘I want to explore the data this way’ and have the tools to do that.

I hardly ever geek-out over technology, but this is the one exception where I rave about it. Compare it to the other end of the spectrum, like the rudimentary graphs in Excel. They just leave you feeling trapped.

Have you noticed increasing interest in interactivity and visualisation from journalists?

We work a lot with publications and I think they’re realising that we need to present these figures visually and in a more compelling way for them to reach people.

That’s definitely been a shift and I think we’ll see more places engaging with data viz companies and studios, as well as more doing it in-house as well.

I’m also interested in how interactivity is being used to tell non-data stories, the most obvious example being Snowfall.

I’m a very avid web user but the problem is that I don’t read a lot of longform content because I just have so much to read that I don’t absorb a lot of it. A lot of sites are just competing for that attention and working out how to make this digestible for people.

I think it’s great to have more visual imagery and better design and it’s great that a piece like Snowfall got such wide attention. It’s like ‘oh, let’s actually pay attention to the design of these articles instead of just dumping text in front of people’.

I’d like to see what the reader stats were for it.

People spent roughly 12 minutes looking through it.

That’s really good.

Because there’s a lot more time gone in to presenting the content like that, I’d also be interested in what that means for the timeliness of certain articles. That was a good piece because it wasn’t about something current, it was just a story.

But it’s a great way of presenting stories which isn’t just dumping traditional print content onto a screen.

Are the tools getting better for making interactive things more quickly? Could we see more timely articles being made interactive?

I wonder whether it’s even possible to produce a piece like that without putting the effort in and finding the best visuals and other  content.

Obviously there are technical aspects like the parallax and scrolling effects they put in, which could just be bundled into tools. But I think that the real beauty of it is in the thoughtfulness, and I’m not sure you could match it without effort and time.

Should we expect more personal projects from you?

I’m always playing around with new technologies. I’ve been meaning to do something with semantic analysis and playing around with words to see biases and other insights.

I’m interested in making people aware of what they’re subconsciously doing and the assumptions they’re making. We’ve got a lot of traces of that on the internet these days, on Twitter, blogs and all these social networks, so it would be cool to do something with it.

That’s just in the back of my mind though. I’m playing around with it but nothing concrete so far.