How I am learning dataviz

Dataviz: what the Dear data challenge taught me in 10 weeks

Dear data is a project warmly to anyone: data analysts, aspiring data analysts like myself, but also teachers, children, artists, and everyone else. With this blogpost, I hope to encourage you, not only read about it, but to run the challenge yourself.

Dear data

Never heard of it?

Dear data is a data drawing project run by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec.

During a year, every week, those 2 talented designers living an ocean apart from each other, sent each other a data visualisation, based on observation of their daily lives. They shared their experience in the book Dear Data and encouraged their readers to join the Dear Data challenge.

My friend Lynda, who lives in Paris and I, run through the Dear Data challenge over 10 weeks, and I’d like to share with you today why you should find yourself a penal and run it too.

What would I need?

You need

  • A pen pal, if you can’t find one, there is a Google group for that (easy)
  • Felt pens or colouring pencils (although you can try with one pen and one colour)
  • 10 stamps and blank postcards (probably the most challenging items to obtain in this day and age)

Check, check, check: now, what are the instructions?

1/ At the beginning of each week, both pen pals agree on a topic to collect data on: a week of food, a week of weather, a week of passing through doors, whatever you want!

Think about also the metadata you are going to collect; for instance, for a week of food, are you going to collect the time you eat? The place? The people you are eating with?

Dear data: discuss and choose your weekly topic

2/ During a week, collect the data the way you prefer: when I asked her tips, Stefanie Posavec recommended the app Reporter to me, but I’m so old school I kept tracks on a notebook

Dear data 3

3/ At the end of the week, each party analyses the data she/he has collected, organises it and sketches a data visualisation.

Dear data 4

4/ Draw on a postcard your data visualisation.

Very important rule: you have to draw manually, don’t cheat and use Tableau or some non sensical dataviz tool!

On the address side of the postcard, you draw the legend and can add your comment / analysis.

Dear data 5

5 / Send the postcard on its way, and a couple of days later, catch up with your friend to compare your works and visualisations.

Dear data 6
Enter a caption

What will I gain for the experience?  

1/ No matter where you are starting from, you will gain data literacy

Whether you are on your path with data, whether you are considering a career in data science or journalism, or are just curious, this project is accessible to everyone.

There are no intimidating technical requirements, no need to learn R, SQL or Tableau beforehand. How Giorgia put it: “Starting small is how we hope to increase data literacy.”

2/ Metadata collection & data visualisation: you will learn by comparing the outcome

You might agree on a topic, you will be amazed by the final results look different between your work and your friend’s.

It boils down to 2 main reasons

  • (Meta)data collection: each party has a different interpretation of the topic and will therefore collect different metadata, or shall we say, contextual information
  • Even when you collect the same data, there is a thousand ways of representing it

Here is an example with a ‘week of food’


  Lynda Anne-Sophie
Data collected Concise: main meals Exhaustive: all the meals and beverages
Metadata collected size of portion, provenance (homemade VS take away VS leftovers), 4 main food types, company during the meals main food types, hours, provenance (homemade VS ready meals


3/ In short, you will learn about what type of data visualiser you are (strengths, challenges)

For instance, we have learnt that Lynda is great as summarising the data in a curated list of symbols and criteria, and leans towards figurative.

I try to represent as much data as possible, sometimes too much, and am obsessed by finding figurative representations.

Dear data 9For instance, for ‘a week of pleasures’, I realised that small pleasures are like coins you collect and the more you collect, the better mood you are in. I was reading ‘Ready Player one’ during that week, and that made me think that a (retro) gamification representation was the best!

4/ You will focus on what matters the most: storytelling

By sticking up to basic tools such as pens and paper, you will actually focus on rawer aspects on data communication and visualisation.

You will spend time trying finding and drawing a story, even on topics that might seem trivial, such as a ‘week of weather’.

For instance, when Lynda and I choose the topic “a week of my hair”, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. Whilst gathering the data, I realised that my behaviour towards my hair depended highly on the number of days since my last wash (twice a week)! I told a story of care and neglect, which is a perpetual bi-weekly cycle with a restart button in the middle.

Dear data 10

5/ A personal exploration

One of the most basic tips you hear when you go on a diet: write down everything you eat, so you can keep track.

I know that Dear Data could look like a prescriptive project (like an analog Fitbit) but, as Giorgia and Stefanie put it: “We’ve always conceived Dear Data as a “personal documentary” rather than a quantified-self project which is a subtle – but important – distinction. Instead of using data just to become more efficient, we argue we can use data to become more humane and to connect with ourselves and others at a deeper level.”

The main idea is that you learn a lot about yourself while collecting the data, and that does not have to be prescriptive but more a mindfulness project.

For instance, I forced Lynda into running ‘a week of smartphone’: how many times we reach out to our phones? Why? What do we do with it?

I thought it would help me switch off and work on my dependence issue, but I realised at I usually tend to have a very legitimate reason to reach out to my phone: the issue is the distracting notifications. So instead of blaming myself for reaching out to much, I discovered that the smartphone was a great tool, all I need is to delete some apps and restrain notifications to the bare minimum.

Dear data 11

I hope I convinced you to find a friend and start this project, don’t hesitate to share the outcome with the hashtag #deardata!

A week of learnings

Dear data 12

I hope I have encouraged you to take the challenge yourself!

Learn more about the Dear Data project

Check Lynda and my Dear Data pictures

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