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Unasked Questions

Possibly as early as elementary school, but certainly by middle school, we’ve been introduced to the classic questions that journalists try to answer: who, what, where, when, how, and why. Colloquially known, inaccurately, as the Five Ws, these questions were the basis of how I was taught to write book reports, essays about current events, papers for history and social studies classes, and just about every other multi-paragraph assignment for the duration of my academic career.

As a career multi-hyphenate, I’ve had to apply these principles as a magazine and journal editor, as a report-writing analyst, and even as a graphic designer trying to defend/sell my work to executives and decision makers. The Five Ws permeate our lives as information professionals...and this extends to our social media world as well.

On the socials, as our Tableau creations are shared and discussed, promoted and consumed, the Five Ws are in play as well. However, it’s been my experience that not all of the questions are are equally considered, probably to our detriment as a community.


Some of the Ws are everywhere. We hear lots about the “how,” for instance.

Some of our friends spend a great deal of time writing instructional posts for their fellow creators at all levels of ability. Some focus on specific elements in which they are unusually well-versed. Some write one-off, but extremely valuable, breakdowns of their process in creating one particular viz. Some share their process of reconstructing others’ vizzes, and what they learned along the way (I miss Takeapart Tuesdays, Charlie). Rest assured, if there’s something you want to learn about “how” to do something in Tableau, there’s almost certainly a blog or a forum post (or ten) that will teach you.


Similarly, we hear a LOT about the “who” of the corpus. Who are the featured authors? Who got Ambassador this year? Who did you nominate for Zen? Who was mentioned in the recap? Who just got viz of the day? Who’s on the podcast(s) this month?

A not-insignificant portion of our discussions are personality-driven: in one sense, that’s a benefit to the creators who are seeing their work appreciated, and can enjoy the satisfaction that comes with that recognition; in another sense, it creates a community that values ancillary qualities (how outgoing you are; how much you create; how much you engage; how much a handful of select people value your contributions) over directly pertinent ones (thoughtfulness; insight; quality in small quantities).


We hear a fair amount about the “what” of the Tableau diaspora’s corpus...or, at least, about the subset that is effectively promoted among its practitioner and enthusiast community, particularly with the emergence of several new themed, hashtagged, public-oriented initiatives.

But I worry a little about the rest of the "what." In particular, I worry that we’re missing the self-directed, the experimental, the independent projects. The oddball topics of specific interest that are the hidden passions of our community, the topics that could spark interest or education or excitement or action, if only they were seen. The topics that have gone unremarked upon, have been marginalized, have been denigrated as too niche.


The "when" and the "where"--well, I worry about these too.

I worry about the “when” because there are times when it feels as though the community considers only one answer to “when” acceptable, and that answer is “constantly.”

In any given week you could easily be in the middle of five or more ongoing initiatives, outside of your day job, and the pressure to “keep up” can feel relentless. It’s not a particularly inclusive atmosphere for people who are new to the community--or for people who are old to the community--or for people who have more than one interest--or for people who have commitments external to data visualization (the horror!).


I worry about the “where” in the context of, “where did this data come from?” While I understand that not everybody participates in Public for the same reasons, I *do* believe that a baseline consideration for anything that a person posts to the internet should be “this is as accurate and true as I can possibly tell.”

  • Where is this data from?

  • Do we know it’s valid?

  • Do we cite our sources in our viz?

  • Do we interpret it correctly?

...these are discussions that DO take place in our world, although I would like to see it more...and I'd like to see it discussed among a wider group of people than the same handful who always seem to be left to carry the banner for data integrity.


That leaves the last question, the one I worry about the most--the "why."

We so rarely talk about the “why” of a visualization.

  • Why does this matter?

  • Why should we pay attention to it?

  • Why did someone painstakingly create it?

Every year, every month, every day our community grows, gets better, invents new ways to leverage Tableau (and other tools) for creative purposes.

Every year, every month, the software gives us new capabilities.

Every year, with every new cohort of practitioners, our instincts, as a community of professionals and hobbyists, improve; we know what can be done with data, and how to treat it responsibly; we know how to protect and honor the individuals within our data, and how to convey our insights more clearly, and more persuasively.

To what end?

Why are we doing this?

We have these skills, these tools, this platform, this community. We celebrate one another’s work as individual pieces; we laud our favorite creators for their entire bodies of work. But we so rarely question the motivations of a piece, the impact it might have *in the real world,* outside of our safe space.

We do not do what we could be doing to celebrate, or elevate, or replicate work where the intrinsic value is high, but the social capital or artistic expression or technical achievement is less remarkable. Is the goal of our endeavor simply artistic expression, or technical achievement? Or is it, rather, for our work to be of external benefit? If it's the latter, then we are not nearly critical enough about the "why" of the vizzes in our world.

Am I a starry-eyed rube, thinking that data visualizations can change the world? That the work of independent creators--regardless of their volume of output, regardless of their engagement on social media, regardless of how many #initiatives they participate in--could be of direct value? Value, if not to a million people, then to a thousand people, or a hundred, or ten?

Am I a naive babe in the woods, to think that we should be seeking out, encouraging, elevating, and celebrating the CREATIONS as much as we celebrate the CREATORS?

ALL of the Five (six) Ws are critically important questions for us, the Tableau and dataviz communities, to continually interrogate ourselves and one another with. We do so very well with half of these questions. What a richer, more powerful community we will become when we get better with the other half as well.


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