Angela Orthmeyer – PLOTCON 2016

Post written by Angela Orthmeyer:

For four days in mid-November, over 30 innovators in the data visualization world spoke at PLOTCON, a conference held at the new space in NYC’s Financial District. As a budding data scientist, I was excited to receive a ticket to attend the conference, courtesy of WiMLDS, in order to learn about the latest developments in data vis. The diverse set of speakers spoke about topics in data visualization for data journalism & web tech, enterprise & productization, open vis in python, and open vis in R.

For me, highlights of the conference included:

  • hearing dynamic, successful women talk about making impactful changes in their organizations,
  • learning about new capabilities in existing technologies that make data exploration easier and faster, and
  • finding out how emerging data vis companies are improving the performance and aesthetics of visualizations in big data.

Though all of the speakers offered valuable takeaways that had me adding to my “things to research” list, I’ll touch on a few that were particularly memorable to me.

I was delighted that two of the talks that I found most interesting were given by women. The first of the two was given by Stacy Jones from Fortune, and the second was a joint talk given by Mollie Pettit & Jess Freaner from Datascope, a data science consulting firm based in Chicago. As the first member of the data department at Fortune, Stacy went from making visualizations for reporters who shuddered at the thought of using Excel, to training those same reporters to make their own charts and figures. Stacy explained how she used a combination of skill, patience and empathy to make data converts of her coworkers. By creating a platform that made data visualization easier, and training reporters in the technology, she helped them write articles that told more compelling stories with data, and were likely read more often that articles without visualizations.

Mollie Pettit & Jess Freaner focused on technique: mainly, how they use an iterative design process when working with clients to tell the stories that they want to tell to a target audience. My favorite part of their talk was when they showed examples of sketched design mockups that they had made using pen and paper. Additionally, Datascope emphasizes creative brainstorming when designing new products for clients. Even though they go on to use sophisticated techniques to make their final products, there’s nothing like putting a pen (or marker, or crayon) to paper that helps fuel the creative process.

Fernando Perez, the founder of IPython and Project Jupyter, blew me away with his demo of a new version of Jupyter notebook, called JupyterLab. JupyterLab integrates a console with the traditional Jupyter Notebook interface. Additionally, a single Notebook can now contain multiple coding languages. For example, a user can write subsequent lines of code in R and Python in the same Notebook. Two other companies are exponentially increasing the speed in which big data is displayed, facilitating exploratory data analysis and interactive data displays. MapD, a company founded by Todd Mostak, uses GPU technology to accelerate performance as much as 1000x. Todd demoed a Tweet Map that allows you to visualize and interact with tweets on multiple scales, from the global level to a neighborhood view. Another new graphics technology for big data is Datashader, an open-source library that allows data scientists to explore relationships in big data in a visual way. Peter Wang, the co-founder of Continuum Analytics, showed how Datashader can be used within Jupyter notebooks and on Bokeh data apps.

I was inspired and motivated to learn more after attending PLOTCON, and look forward to implementing some of these new technologies and lessons learned as I continue along my Data Scientist journey!