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Duncan Clark Wants to Make Your Data Visualizations More Talkative

Flourish CEO talks about data journalism and new ways of telling stories with data

Duncan Clark is the CEO of award-winning visualization studio Kiln which incubated Flourish. Duncan is passionate about data journalism and aspires for Flourish to enable his clients to create high-end visualizations.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with the co-founder and CEO of Flourish, Duncan Clark. A flourish is a self-service tool that allows non-coders to create high-end visualizations and stories. It was created when Clark and his co-founder CTO Robin Houston were working on multiple client projects at their award-winning visualization studio Kiln.

Duncan and Robin started working on visualization side projects for clients in 2012. Their first projects, such as the Carbon Map, generated a lot of interest, so they set up a visualization studio, Kiln. Over the next few years, they worked with clients from the Guardian and Google to the WHO and LSE and won prizes at the Data Journalism Awards and the Information Is Beautiful Awards, among others.

Throughout this time, Duncan and Robin were working on an idea: a tool to allow non-coders to create high-end visualizations and stories without the cost and delays of commissioning bespoke projects. By 2016 they had a clear vision for such a tool and began to build a team to make Flourish a reality.

Duncan walks us through his and Robin’s journey from working on visualizations as a side project in 2012 to set up their studio to following through on their storytelling vision with Flourish. Duncan and the team had just wrapped up a big project for the UK General Elections when we caught up.

Allen Hillery: First off, congrats on your work during the general election supporting dozens of newsrooms with live maps and charts! What was that energy like and walk us through how you made that process happen? Is this the first time you’ve done live graphics and what were the key lessons learned from this experience?

Duncan Clark: Thanks! The election project was great fun to work on — and a perfect way of battle testing Flourish’s new live data features. It was also an interesting experiment in providing journalists with a whole package of “ready to use” interactive graphics rather than just providing the tools for them to make their own graphics. For live projects especially, data access is often just as big a challenge as making the visuals. This project was a case in point: Two of my colleagues ended up staying up all night entering election results manually after the volunteers behind the crowd-sourced data feed all went to bed!

AH: I would love for you to tell us a little more about yourself. You’re currently the CEO of Kiln, an award-winning visualization studio, and you have this amazing product called Flourish. How did this all come about? What sets Flourish apart from other data visualization tools?

DC: My cofounder Robin Houston and I set up Kiln in 2012 to explore new ways of telling stories with data. We wanted to combine a journalistic narrative approach to data (my background) with the advanced graphics tech available in modern web browsers (Robin’s background). It started out as a side project but quickly became a little studio, producing bespoke interactive data visualizations with a focus on narrative and animation.

We loved the work, but doing everything bespoke was slow and therefore expensive and exclusive. We ended up coding visuals for one-off projects that we knew could be useful for many other datasets, which felt wasteful. And because there was no back-end infrastructure attached to each graphic, customers couldn’t do useful things like update the data themselves, translate the text, or change the narrative for different audiences. Everyone we worked for had a CMS (content management system) for editing text and image content on their website, but no one had a CMS for interactive content.

So Robin and I set out to create Flourish. The aim was to allow users to produce, edit and publish visualizations and animated data stories in a self-service way. Our four key design principles are still what differentiates the product:

Storytelling — Support for animations and narratives in addition to simpler charts and maps.

Easy — No special technical skill is required from users.

Flexible — Any developer can add new templates with no limitation on the design and functionality.

Web — Fully responsive for mobile and robust for massive audiences.

AH: You have a degree in music and I love your background as a data journalist. Can you help the audience understand your career path and if you feel your study of music influenced it? What, in your opinion, is a data journalist and what skill sets and experiences are required?

DC: Wow, that degree seems a very long time ago now! Maybe there’s a connection between studying music and getting excited about audio-driven visualizations (and I did manage to include Bach’s Goldbach Variations in, but it was actually my cofounder Robin, a mathematician and computer scientist by background, who came up with the idea of synchronizing audio and interactive visuals in our first-ever joint project.

Robin Houston (Left) and Duncan Clark presenting one of their earlier visualizations, shipmap. This visualization explores the movements of cargo fleets in 2012. As the visualization shows the number of oil, dry bulk, and several other shipments, it also reminds us of the carbon impact to the environment having these goods in our life.

In terms of career path, mine was a bit meandering. I went from writing music at college to writing about music in a publishing house. That led to being an editor, writer, and designer on books and online projects across other topics, and climate change and data graphics became specialisms. That eventually led to journalism, when I joined The Guardian’s newly expanded climate team. From there I got into an interactive visualization, but it didn’t really take over my life until I met Robin, the brilliant developer who had built the original Guardian website in the early 2000s and was described in editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s memoirs as “the cleverest human being to ever walk through the Guardian’s doors.”

“For me, data journalism always just meant “doing journalism on a data-rich topic” rather than a specific discipline or end in itself. My advice for anyone starting their career would be not to worry about formal role classifications. Instead, follow what you think is interesting, try only to work places where there’s lots of potential to learn and redefine your own role, and seek out amazing people to partner with.” — Duncan Clark on data journalism

AH: One reason I find your educational background interesting is because there has been a growing trend of companies hiring liberal arts majors in data-centric roles and organizations. I would love to hear your thoughts on data literacy not being one size fits all.

DC: That’s interesting! I’m probably not entirely typical of that trend, as I focused on maths and sciences at school and almost started a degree in chemistry before switching to music last minute. But I do feel strongly that data visualization and storytelling has as much to learn from the humanities as the sciences. Ultimately, the value of data is to understand the world, but for the insights gleaned to be meaningful we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions in the first place; and for them to have any impact we need to communicate the results engagingly.

Take Hans Rosling. His skill in statistics and visualization would probably have never had much impact had he not combined them with a philosopher’s instinct for interesting questions, a writer’s knack for structuring a story and a thespian’s stage presence.

AH: I always love to ask people in the space the difference between data visualization and data storytelling. What do you feel differentiates the two?

DC: People use the phrase “storytelling” in lots of different ways, but in the Flourish context we generally mean something quite specific: an actual narrative with a start, middle and end. Typically this means a sequence of one or more visualizations, with animations between views wherever possible.

In terms of the actual mechanism of progressing through a story, that might be forward and back buttons (the presentation paradigm), scrolling down a page (the scrollytelling paradigm) or it might be an audio track with time codes (the video paradigm). Flourish now supports all of these.

AH: In your blog post, you open with audio being able to enrich visual storytelling and bridge the gap between the exploration and explanation of data. Can you talk more about that and do you feel this approach is suitable for all audiences and settings?

DC: In most contexts, the tools we use for exploring data are different from those we use to explain data. In a business context, for example, a user might analyse some data in Tableau or Excel or R, but when the audience (the corporate board, say) receive the “story”, they’ll typically be looking at visuals in a PowerPoint deck or printed PDF, neither of which are explorable.

Of course, a presenter could exit their “explainer” slides and switch to an “explorer” dashboard in another application when exploration is required, but that rarely works well for a number of reasons. So we’re interested in closing that gap.

“If an exploratory visualization can show lots of different views and be designed well enough to communicate, why not string those views together into a presentation, complete with animation and explorability? And why not make it mobile friendly and embeddable too. That’s the idea behind a Story in Flourish.” — Duncan Clark on the meaning of storytelling

A “Talkie” is the same but instead of a presenter giving the narration over the interactive slides, the voice is provided by a prerecorded audio file for online use (Robin coined the phase absentation, as opposed to presentation). This is a nice way to combine the “lean back” narrative experience of video with the “lean in” experience of an interactive tool — to tell a story but also let the audience find their own stories too.

AH: It’s been said that audience participation garners the most retention and actionability. Using the below chart as a reference and elaborating on the effectiveness of Talkies, how might they best be used to facilitate a meeting where the audience might not be as “technical” or traditionally used to presented insights?

DC: I can well believe that audience participation garners better retention, and we’ve been working on a few Flourish templates recently that are more about the audience participating in the data rather than just looking at it: a data-driven quiz, for example, a “guess the line” chart, and a live survey tool. These could all work well in a meeting context to boost engagement.

Talkies are more designed for use online where there isn’t a presenter to explain things. The audio voiceover can be used both to share insights and to explain how to explore the interactive elements, highlighting menu and so on. And it simplifies the UX down to one button: “just press play.”

AH: I love the Carbon Maps diagram! It’s a great example of how to use talkies. Do you feel there are other tools out there that are beginning to make data explanation easier?

DC: Thanks! That was the first ever Kiln project, and the one where we first experimented with audio-driven visualization. We realised we’d made a visual that was cool and rich but wanted to add a voiceover to help people understand what they were looking at and see some interesting views. We originally had the idea to do this as a video explainer, but Robin had the cool idea of doing it as an audio file that “controlled” the interactive instead. I recorded the voiceover and my wife came up with the name Talkie!

I’m not aware of any other tools with a specific focus on data explanation. But Flourish is also for simpler charts and maps, so there’s lots of overlap with how Flourish is used and how other tools are used.

AH: Can global warming be described as a topic near and dear to your heart? As co-author of The Burning Question with Mike Berners-Lee, you begin to show the scientific, political and social dynamics of this topic. Do you feel the visual storytelling aspect of the carbon maps diagram begins to help people understand the concepts you were conveying a little bit more?

DC: Yes, I spent about a decade working on climate change in various ways and, although it’s no longer my day job, it’s still something I think a lot about. The book was an attempt to take a data-driven systems-level look at the problem. It explores things such as the relationship between fossil fuel reserves each in country and its negotiating position in the climate talks, and the failure of apparent progress to make any impact at all on the global emissions growth curve due to various types of rebound effects. Many of the early Kiln visualizations, such as Carbon MapHow Hot Will it Get in Your Lifetime? and The Past, Present and Future of CO₂, were experiments in using interactive storytelling to engage audiences with these same themes. Books are amazing for exploring a line of thought in depth, but there’s no doubt our visualization projects reached much larger audiences.

AH: What do you see down the pipeline for Kiln and Flourish?

DC: We’re now focused entirely on Flourish, which is developing fast and will see a lot of new features in 2020. We’ll soon be releasing our new theming system, a live data connector, better annotations, and a scrollytelling tool, which makes it possible to “drive” any Flourish story by scrolling through a normal text article. And of course more templates. Look out for the new moving dots map (à la, “draw the line” charts, and even a template for viewing and annotating 3D models. We’re also working on ways to programmatically analyse spreadsheets and automatically build visualizations based on their contents, but that’s a longer-term ambition.

As for Kiln the agency, people still approach us asking for bespoke projects, but these days we tend to bring in freelance “Flourish experts” to deliver those as custom Flourish templates. This way we can stay focused on the product and the customer gets a reusable tool where they can update the data and text directly, tell their own stories and mix and match between custom and off-the-shelf graphics. We’re also really interested in working with other freelancers and agencies to see Flourish becoming the platform through which theyserve bespoke graphics to their own customers.

AH: When clients come to you, what is their level of expertise with visual storytelling? Are you a partner or guide in their journey? Are there any industries that visual storytelling is most suitable for? Industries that are challenging? Industries that you don’t see visual storytelling used enough?

DC: One thing that’s so exciting about working on Flourish is the amazing range that our users represent in terms of job role, level of expertise, sector and organisation size. Everyone has data to communicate these days. We’ve even noticed a trend in corporates creating “data journalism” roles as they realise that data storytelling matters in addition to data science.

These days we see our role as providing tools, inspiration and advice, though for our bigger customers we add some consultancy and that can feel more like a partnership.

AH: Where do you see the future of business intelligence, data visualization and data storytelling going?

DC: I foresee the merging of tools for analysis, publishing and presentation, and the growing impact of AI — initially to create visualizations automatically but over time also to find insights, identify trends and maybe even tell stories.

AH: Do you feel data storytelling will increase data literacy?

DC: Yes! But I think that’s just one example of a more general rule: communicate something well, and people will be more engaged with it and better able to understand it.


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