Updated: May 25
The most popular data viz competition in the world, Tableau’s IronViz competition challenges analysts to push the boundaries with storytelling, analysis, and design from the conference stage building a dashboard in a mere 20 minutes. But to even get to the stage you first have to complete the Qualifier, with only the Top 3 advancing to the Finals.
And the qualifier isn’t easy. A data set isn’t supplied, and you only have month to create your viz. Only 198 vizzes were submitted to the qualifier this year, a fraction of the millions of vizzes posted on Tableau Public.
I was one of those 198. I was actually #4 of those 198. And let me tell you…it was a journey.
How I tackled the 2022 IronViz Qualifier
This year’s theme was Visualizing the Arts. Idk about you, but that can be an intimidating theme, since Tableau needs data (aka numbers) and art in its strictest form is the opposite of numbers lol.
I spent the first few weeks just brainstorming. I took notes of any ideas on my iPhone. I talked to friends and family looking for inspiration. My fiancé Patton suggested visualizing stolen art. That idea sparked my interested, so I bounced it off of Nelson Davis who loved the idea and shared this NYT article that ended up being the catalyst for my whole design!
Now that I had my idea, I had to find some data. Wayyy easier said than done. That has to be why so few people compete. I probably spent more time researching, compiling, and cleaning data than I did on the actual dashboard. However, this does force you to truly understand and learn about the topic you are visualizing.
I started first by reaching out to Interpol, yes the legit International Criminal Police Organization, to see if I could get access to the tabular data behind their Stolen Works of Art Database…no dice
I read some articles, but nothing had enough raw data to support my viz
I honestly gave up for a while, until I stumbled upon Netflix’s “This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist.” I was re-inspired all over again and it gave me a better lens to focus on for my data viz story.
I searched around and finally found some data tables on Wikipedia I could copy over to excel along with a few infographics I manually entered into excel. (I’m sure there was a better way, but idk how to web scrape data lol. I’ll learn that for next time!)
The Story & Analysis
I decided I wanted to go from macro to micro, looking at worldwide trends of stolen art and how often they were recovered. From there I would drill down into a particular case and truly immerse the reader into the story, letting them follow the thieves’ trail through the museum and see the art pieces that were stolen.
If you know me then you could guess that I used Miro to brainstorm the visualization story. I had a section for research with my data and articles, a Kanban of items to tackle, and of course a rough wireframe of the story I wanted to tell with pictures, sticky notes, and links to a few Tableau How-To’s. It provided the perfect canvas to organize my ideas.
So how long did this take me?
The timing to build the viz was perfect. We had planned a ski trip (I am a novice snowboarder) so I spent half the day on the mountain, the other half chipping away at IronViz while Patton hit the black diamonds that I wasn’t about to go near.
The data - However, there were lots of typos in data and I spent a lot of time manually cleaning my Wikipedia tables in excel. Since the data set was small, I opted to just do it manually in excel. I realize this might be cringy to some data folks, but the data set was small enough that it wasn’t too bad. Plus, this forced me to again learn more of the content and I could structure the data exactly like I needed for my Tableau visuals.
The design - I used Tableau for everything except the top section with the title and image, which I quickly pulled together in #Figma.
The visuals - Most of the visuals were pretty straight forward. I’ve used every element of IronViz in at least one of my Tableau projects from work, yes even the Google Street View. That saved me a lot of time and honestly gave me more confidence. Pro tip: if you want to get more experience hacking Tableau, get a consulting job. Clients ask for all the things and it’s fun figuring out how to make it happen!
The challenges -
Lost to Recovered horizontal slope graph – So initially I wanted an arc chart. I had never built one before and I thought it would be a unique way to visualize the story. However, I started to realize I was spending too much time on it. One day Patton got back from the slopes and could tell that I was frustrated. It was cutting into my vacation time with him and that’s when I realized the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. An arc looks cool and has its place, but I knew a slope graph would tell the exact same story and take me a fraction of the time. So, I opted for an easy viz and more time with my fiancé <3
Museum walkthrough with Google Street View – Not gonna lie, I feel like this was the coolest part of my viz! It took some time with the data and google street embed. If there’s interest in how I created this section, I’ll include it as a separate blog post. So let me know! :)
The Stolen Art Pagination – This section requires a lot of steps so it can be difficult and time consuming the first time you try it, but since I had done this for other clients, building it was actually super-fast. Happy to share how I did this as well if there’s interest!
Other time consuming items -
The tooltips - I’m a stickler for formatted, easy to digest tooltips. Tooltips are super important in our business dashboards, providing definitions and more clarity as to what users are looking at.
The annotations took me longer than I thought because every time you make a change to your viz, they go away. *Shakes fist in air! So, if I wanted to make any tweaks to the viz itself, I had to type the annotations out all over again. Pro Tip: save those for very last.
Last, I got feedback from my rockstar coworkers at Analytic Vizion, made those tweaks, and finally submitted on my viz on Feb 7… the last day to submit lol. In the end I’m estimating it took me about 30-40 hours total. That’s basically an entire workweek.
I was so proud of my data story and submission. The process was fun, challenging, and the perfect place to pull together so much of what I had learned into one Tableau canvas. I truly felt like I would place in the top 3.
On Friday March 18th they finally announced the results. The webinar went down the list starting with #10. With each number announcement my adrenaline increased. They got through 10-5 and I just knew I had made it. I was going to Las Vegas. The slide switched to announce #4 and I went completely numb. There was my viz. Lost but not Forgotten. Top 4…one spot away from the finals. And then came a swarm of emotions.
But that didn’t make it any easier. You see, I normally don’t fail. I exceed expectations. In academics, in sports, and in data viz. I invest time and work very hard to achieve my goals. So when I don’t quite make it, it hurts.
Upon the announcement, I was showered with congrats from my amazing AV team. And I was so thankful. In that moment I needed it more than I realized. I was still feeling numb and being quiet – not at all my normal enneagram type 7, bubbly and positive self. And I thought I was fine until one of my talented teammates Andrew Ojeda, said that I must just be being humble since I was so quiet. And inside I crumbled. I held it together until after the meeting and then… I just cried. I reached out to the person I knew would understand the most, my leader and friend Nelson Davis, and just poured my heart out.
In that moment I was so disappointed in myself, feeling like I had let everyone around me down. Yet, all things that I had internally put on myself, nobody else had expected those things of me. Seconds after sending that message to Nelson, he calls me. This man has about 1 million things to do every day running his own company, yet he stopped it all to be there for me. He did what any true leader would do. He listened, he comforted, he encouraged, he provided a safe space, and he offered advice from his own experience with being -and then not being- a Tableau Visionary (Zen Master). Then he let me process. He reassured, “it’s okay to process and be upset about something you worked hard for, but you can’t stay in a dark place.” I knew he was right. And as the day went on, I worked through changing those negative thoughts into realizing this IronViz experience was something to be very proud of. And in the end, it's just one data viz competition. It's meant to be fun! Everything happened this way for a reason, it’s all in God’s timing and love.
So, after work we decided to celebrate. My fiancé and I went on a fun, sweet date to celebrate so many exciting things happening for us. Pro Tip: find a partner that gets excited for your accomplishments and always supports you <3 even if it’s a bit nerdy
But the rollercoaster didn’t end there. This experience ended up being more than I could have ever imagined.
Beyond the Competition
Back on February 24th, a tragedy shocked the world, Russia invaded the Ukraine. The horrors of the event are unimaginable. In response, Analytic Vizion saw the need in Ukraine and created a donation matching initiative to enable those teams fighting and helping on the ground. Nelson truly adheres to our value “we are sons and daughters, and this is family.”
It was on my heart to donate to this cause, and I was praying through how I should best contribute.
Fast forward to March 31 at our quarterly #RocktheViz celebration. That experience is a whole other blog post in of itself. We celebrated our achievements as a company and spent time together as a team. Towards the end of night, Nelson stood at the front and spoke about how proud he was of our team participating in the IronViz qualifier and for me specifically making it to Top 4. And then he presents me with a big check of $1,000!!! I couldn’t believe it. I was overcome with emotion. I stood up to give him a big hug and accept the check, but I knew in my heart what I wanted to do. I look at him and said, “Can I ask you a question? Can I give this right back to you for the people in the Ukraine?” He just smiled.
I don’t share this to brag. I don’t share this to promote myself. I share this because this is something I’ve been seeking and praying about for a long time…to use my data viz skills for something bigger, impactful, and truly helpful to others. I’m so blessed and thankful for a job where I have fun and get to help clients with their business dashboards. I know it provides value, but in my heart, I want to use my data viz talents for more. Donating that check to Hope Partners International has felt more like fulfilling my purpose than any other project has before.
Was IronViz a time consuming, fun, emotional roller coaster? Yes. 100%. But, having an avenue to use that journey to give back to the world was what made it all more than worth it. Thank you #AnalyticVizion for pushing me to go for it and for adhering to our core values “Lead through Serving.” I’ve always wanted to use my Tableau skills for something more, something bigger that truly helps people. And you made that possible.