The class was meant to be a portfolio-builder, focused on journalistic interactive visualization. We used data from UNICEF in the first semester, visible in the examples and projects. This coming semester has fewer journalism students, which means changing the content a little, a process I'm still going through in the repo. This post is a recap of what we did and what was hard about it. Next post (in a week) will show some of my students' work.
Interactivity and "Journalistic" Vis
Why teach D3? At least one friend teaching journalism students said he'd never do that again. I heard this right before I started on the adventure. But this course was meant to be on interactive data visualization, which means a chart does more than behave like a static bar chart and readers do more than look at the bars. I have talk slides here about designing for interactivity in vis, and primarily the examples I show are built in D3. This is the current lay of the land!
There is still no better library than D3 for building custom data-driven designs, with custom interactions, and integrating them with the web page DOM. I did show Highcharts, and one of the first homeworks was to use it for a few charts. But the animated transitions in D3 (and open palette of design options) are what sell it, and all my students wanted to do fancy artistic animations in their final projects: animated maps, animated lines, animated lines on maps, synchronized lines and maps that animate over time, you name it if it involved lines or maps apparently. :) (It pushed me hard too, to help them figure all that out.)
When I was trying to learn D3, I wanted to know how to hook up a chart to UI elements and make things move, but the books out there didn't get into anything that fancy, sticking mostly to how to create static charts in isolation. Static charts are usually much easier to create with other tools than D3 (unless it's an "unusual" chart type). So for my class I focused a lot on the UI interaction aspects of D3 coding. D3 can do a lot of fancy things, like networks, parallel coordinates, sankey diagrams... But I stuck to the "basics" for journalistic vis in this class:
- Tables and heatmaps
- Bars, vertical and horizontal
- Lines, including handling lots and lots of lines
- Stream/Area charts
- Stacked and grouped bars
- Small multiples
Setting up the Tools: Github and Servers, Oh My
Getting folks set up on day one with a server and Github was a challenge, but luckily most of them had encountered a little bit of git before. However, most students did not know how to use the command line, and two of them had Windows machines, so this was "challenging" for all including me. (I totally forgot that all people don't automatically know Unix and Windows command line. Really threw me for a loop.) I probably oversold how useful "git stash" is when they had conflicts, but I feel no regret. Before too long they were git pulling every week and had learned how to make gists.
Gists are the building blocks of a portfolio of bl.ocks, a key component of the D3 community eco-system. Also, they were required for easier grading and debugging on my part — especially now that Ian Johnson (@enjalot) has released blockbuilder.org, which made debugging a lot simpler.
For some reason, using a server really stumps new web programmers. (After watching people struggle, I've put a bunch of documentation on setting them up in the nascent drafty d3-faq.) Folks who have done only static web design have usually not got a good understanding of why you need to use a server to view and render code. Unlearning that they can just double click on their file to view it takes a lot of time. No, the URL really has to say "localhost://" not "file://". The source of many bugs for the first few weeks was folks not having loaded their page using the server, even after they had set one up. (And note: That's an example of an issue that's harder to debug by email remotely than it is when you're looking over their shoulder. There were a lot like this. My office hours were sometimes busy.)
I also should have buckled down on teaching data manipulation tools earlier. In an attempt to be "easier" on them, I didn't teach d3.nest() right away, and helped one poor student (hi Luis!) write a laborious loop in JS to nest his data... After that hour, I realized, "Teach all the tools. Teach the nest()." Students need to know about the helper functions, which will save them time down the road. A homework on nesting data followed. I'll introduce lodash.js this spring semester, too.
A Lack of "Complex" Examples To Teach From
Many of the D3 examples, books, and tutorials are basic or even "toy" (abstract from realistic frames, not using real data, etc). There's a role for the basic — the best intro book is Scott Murray's very simple, unscary starter book, Interactive Data Vis for the Web. We started there, of course, but as we got into complex animations and transitions, there were fewer and fewer good working examples and tutorials out there to inspire class materials.
The big exceptions are the tutorials of Jim Vallandingham and Nathan Yau on Flowing Data; both do "journalistic" vis how-to's on their sites. I borrowed and adapted several of theirs, for small multiples and maps in particular. Jim's code tends towards more "advanced" and I simplified some of it — which I have mixed feelings about and may undo; Nathan's code I sometimes updated when it was using older D3 style or could be made more functional. Scott Murray's intro examples I also updated to use more D3-common conventions (e.g., adding the margin object convention, removing for-loops).
Even after seeing how to use functions for update patterns in D3, when project time came, everyone struggled to organize their code. When I asked people to just make a page combining 3 charts on it, all hell broke loose in the global scope conflict space. While I was quite clear that projects were judged on end-user experience, not code quality, code structure issues made it much harder for the students to modify and debug their own code. I'll be focusing more on code structure this semester.
Finding a Data Story Is Hard
Almost all of the class had had a static infographics class (from Alberto Cairo), but the practice of finding a story in data is hard, and I considered it outside the scope of the course. I recommended and demoed Excel and Tableau to a few students who were struggling, and luckily several had already had experience using Tableau. (I tried PowerBI briefly and was also very impressed by it!) Nevertheless, data "stories" for their projects were in flux until the very end. It's notoriously difficult to "design" for data vis without using the real data (sketching by hand only gets you so far), and a lack of proficiency with exploratory tools probably impaired some of them.
With a class next semester that's less journalistic, I'll expand the project grading to allow for less data-driven stories and allow a broader range of data visualization. I'll also be exploring a design process that starts with data exploration, then moves to UI sketches, then moves to phased development and feedback cycles.
Debugging is Also Hard
I knew I should teach debugging, and I did, but I think you can only teach it to a point. It's boring to watch someone else doing it, but it's also necessary. Getting students to learn how to use breakpoints in the Chrome console is a necessary evil, as is walking back through the stack trace.
One of the harder aspects of debugging is that you have to have a lot of experience with what can go wrong to be able to guess what it might be this time. It's about hours spent doing it. This is hard to teach; it just requires practice time.
Students Will Find and Replicate All Your Bugs
Because the general practice of learning D3 in the wild is to take examples and modify them to fit your own data, I wanted to support that in my class. I made examples and then had the class plug in their own data (hopefully on the topic of their final project!). This means that code sloppiness, errors, and bad habits in my code ended up replicated and magnified over and over. Including bad UI design — one example with unfortunate bar coloring showed up in a couple of projects.
My homework is to fix all that in the repo and try not to introduce too many new ones.
Thanks for Content I Borrowed, Linked To, or Adapted
People whose work contributed a lot to this repo include Mike Bostock, Scott Murray, Jim Vallandingham, Nathan Yau, Mike Freeman, Ian Johnson.
The repo (that will keep evolving this semester) is here. I expect to be adding more examples — such as for canvas, crossfilter/dc.js, and perhaps other layouts. There might even be data "art." I will post links and examples from student projects for the fall in another week or so!