Recap: General Assembly Data Viz Crash Course

In celebration of the 2017 Hubway Data Challenge presented by Microsoft, we teamed up with General Assembly to host a crash course on data visualization. Those fortunate enough to grab a seat to the sold-out event had the opportunity to learn the history and fundamentals of data visualization as well as brainstorm ideas for the Challenge with a rich assortment of designers, programmers, students, and enthusiastic Hubway riders. Hubway Ambassador Gavin reports.

The course was taught by local MIT Media Lab Fellow, WBUR Engagement Director, Hubway Data Challenge judge, and fellow data nerd, Lisa Williams. Once everyone was settled and satiated with B.Good’s graciously donated veggie and grain bowls, Lisa began with the rich history of data visualization. From its origins of recording the trade of grain goods in Mesopotamia, early maps of the Ancient Greeks, travel journals during colonization, to the digital forms used by businesses and organizations worldwide to track funding and investments. The ability to organize and share complex information has and continues to be key to commerce, policy, and development.

Lisa then turned to discuss the varying approaches and formats for displaying information. She stressed the importance of understanding human beings’ natural strengths and weaknesses when it comes to recognizing and differentiating shapes and patterns. There are infinite ways to present information but when it comes to comparing two figures, presenting correlations, or tracking changes over time and space, more often than not, simplicity is best.

Drawing on her professional experiences, Lisa provided numerous examples of tables, charts, and graphics she has witnessed. This provided the most amusing sections of the night. She explained that it is not only important to understand what makes an effective graphic but also to recognize what does not. Lisa did this by presenting a fun segment called, "When Charts Go Horribly, Horribly Wrong," which provided a series of painful examples, that were ugly, exceptionally confusing, or simply plain wrong, like in this image:

This tied into her emphasis on data visualization not just as a creator but as a viewer. Whether at work, in the news, or on the street, we are continuously presented with information to indicate a trend and support an argument. Much of this, though, comes from a biased source and is often misleading. Now more than ever, it is important for everyone to know how to read such visual information critically so as to be able to not only draw conclusions but also recognize its flaws and limitations.

After the humorous and informative presentation, participants broke into smaller groups of varying disciplines to discuss their skills, interests, and brainstorm how they could approach Hubway’s Data Challenge. It was inspiring to see veteran data scientists and programmers team up with artists and aspiring undergraduates to work together and discuss what insightful stories they could create.

What began as a group of curious, quiet individuals, patiently waiting turn at the B.Good buffet, ended with smiles and lively chatter, with everyone excited about the potential for what could be created and discovered with Hubway’s ridership data -- a great way to kick off the Data Challenge. We’re excited to see your entries. Remember: the deadline is April 10th. Find out more at

Didn’t get a chance to attend the Data Visualization Crash Course? You can download the course slideshow presentation here, and check out GA’s other upcoming data analytics workshops and courses: