Reflections on one year at the ONS

It’s been just over one year since I joined the Office for National Statistics to work in the data visualisation team. As with most jobs it took a while to find my feet, but I no longer stumble when I explain my job. I help communicate the data the ONS collects about the UK economy and society in a way that’s more understandable. Moving away from long reports and excel sheets, our multidisclipinary teams uses plain English and visuals to improve communication. By improving how we talk about stats, we hope to raise the level of debate in society about important issues.

When I took the job, it felt like jumping fields. But there is a lot of overlap with my previous roles in user research, parliament communications, public engagement and science communication. You need to know your audience, work to get yourself where they are, and give them a meaningful engagement. Although I’m doing more programming and more maths now which suits me.

From amateur to professional

I started doing interactive data visualisations as a bit of a hobby. I set myself weekend projects putting data into existing visualisations as a way to learn to code with d3.js. I read other people’s blog posts about issues in data vis for example, using colour wisely or the best way to represent data truthfully.

But now I’m a practitioner I’ve learnt so much more. I’ve improved my coding and can create things from scratch rather than just repurpose examples. I understand more web technologies. I am more familiar with principles of data vis so I can talk about why things should be a certain way. I’ve done more writing and have more experience of integrating storytelling into projects. I’ve managed more projects simultaneously than ever before. I’m a manager for the first time which is a big learning experience but it’s rewarding to see someone flourish and grow.

Being in a team of data vis specialists means we talk a lot about data vis. We also get approached by colleagues in the ONS about the best way to represent a particular story in a dataset. Critically talking about data vis and learning to articulate what makes a good data viz only really happens when you have other knowledgeable people around. Having talked to other government analysts, our team is in a unique position with so many data vis specialists in one team.

What’s coming up?

On a personal level, there are several areas I want to develop. I want to improve my data wrangling, my story generation and project management. I want to use some of my user research skills to feed into the evidence behind what we do. There is a the team challenge of integrating the learnings from our visual.ons prototype website into the way the organisation works and perhaps even wider than the ONS.

When sitting down to write this blog post, I realised that although I learnt how to code through my visualisation experiments. But I only learnt how to talk about data vis with other people around me and I wonder if other analysts aren’t able to have these conversations because they don’t have data viz people around them. And if we created a friendly space for these conversations to happen, would this help graphical literacy. I feel there’s an appetite as we have often have people on our data vis courses from other public bodies.

So if you’re interested in starting something let’s talk.