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Ian Johnson

Ian and I talk about his long history of building up the d3.js community, his day-to-day working at Observable, and the value of breaking projects down into small pieces.

Ian Johnson#

Ian and I talk about his long history of building up the d3.js community, his day-to-day working at Observable, and the value of breaking projects down into small pieces.

@enjalot

Transcript#

Amelia:

Today we have Ian Johnson on. He's a data visualization developer at Observable, and he's been a big part of the d3.js community for a while now. So Ian, if you want to introduce yourself and talk about your history with the d3 community...

Ian:

Sure. Yeah. I mean, it's actually been almost 10 years.... well, d3 has been out for, will have been out for 10 years in February, 2021. And I sort of stumbled onto it by joining a startup in 2011, where they were like, "Hey, we want to build some visualization tools. This new library came out. Can you help us? Let's figure it out and build stuff with it."

So I got pretty lucky there, in terms of, it's turned out to be a great library and a great tool to use, to make visualizations all that time. I think, though, I remember back then the main way to learn it was by asking questions on the mailing list. And, you know, I spent a good six months banging my head against the desk, trying to understand the enter, update, exit pattern and we actually started a meetup because it was so hard to learn.

We started at the SF Bay area meetup as like 10 people getting together for coffee to talk about d3 and so I've been part of that for a long time as well, which has been a great way to see what other people are making and learn from other folks.

Amelia:

I love that. I went to the d3 unconf conference, or non-conference, last year. How have you seen the community grow over the past decade? Because, I feel like, the 10 people in a coffee shop to the conference last year, it's really grown a lot.

Ian:

Yeah, yeah, the community is huge. I mean, d3 is one of the most like, starred, or whatever, Github projects / open source projects out there, but the community of people sharing and making work has grown a lot over that time.

I think it's really interesting to see. So the unconference came about as a recognition that there are some big data viz conferences, but what was really nice about the meetups was chatting with everybody and the one-on-one conversations that we did get at the nice conferences, you know, between the sessions you get to have spirited discussions about how people did things and that kind of stuff. So we wanted to say, can we have an event where that's all we do. And we also purposely limited to a hundred people. So, we've done five of them now, last year was the most recent, and we always keep it to that size to where you don't feel overwhelmed.

You can't quite meet every single person, but you feel like you can, you know, talk to folks. You can always reach someone you want to talk to. Yeah. So I think that, you know, one thing I've also appreciated by the d3 community, both the in-person meetups, the conferences, and online is how humble and welcoming people are.

I think there's something about d3 where it combines design, software engineering, data analytics, and data science, all of these disciplines that it's hard enough to be an expert at any one of those to expect to be an expert at all of them is pretty much impossible. I mean, there's people like you that make amazing things, right? But you also know that like you've learned a lot from folks in the community and you partner with people, I think right? And there's... it's just impossible to know all the things about all the things. Nobody comes in with a better-than-thou attitude.

And I think that that's always been really encouraging for me as someone who, at this time after doing it for so long, there's a lot of d3 stuff I know, but there's way more d3 stuff that I don't know. I'm still constantly learning from you, from folks like Shirley, and Nadieh, right? Just people making beautiful, impactful visualizations, always combining new techniques and pulling on stuff from these different disciplines. It never you never stop learning. So while that could be imposing in one way, the other, to me, is inspiring because there is no ceiling.

Amelia:

I think you hit the nail on the head. It's just such a great welcoming community with such a diverse set of people. Like, I think you have a CS background, I have like a psychology neuro background, there's people who are from research backgrounds, people who are from... what's something weird? What's the weirdest background you've heard?

Ian:

The weirdest background? I know there's people that are school teachers. I've noticed that a lot of designers I've met that I ended up doing data viz projects have a different background from like design, right? So like anthropology... it's really cool. Like people come in basically wanting to express some data, like some patterns or something they know about, right? But in this new way, using programming to be able to automate or make it interactive or, yeah, bringing a different perspective in, right?

And so you get so many different perspectives. It's really cool.

Amelia:

Yep. And we're always learning from each other. And I think that's so great. Kind of related, you've been doing data visualization for almost a decade now, or maybe a decade now. What is the strongest motivation for you to keep visualizing data? What's the best part about it?

Ian:

The strongest motivation for me is trying to gain a better understanding of how things work. I feel like data is the most direct way to see what's going on in a complex system. A lot of the work I've done over the years has been in trying to understand complex systems. So it could be large-scale computing, could be elections or COVID, that kind of stuff. Anything where there's a lot of things going on, it's really complicated, a lot of things to consider, but we also have good data on it, I feel is a prime candidate for applying visualization to.

 

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