Tableau Community Spotlight: An Interview with Sophie Warnes

Sophie Warnes Bio

My name is Soph and I’m a huge nerd and trained journalist who loves using data to help people better understand the world. I’m a Londoner living in Cardiff and working for the Office for National Statistics as a Senior Data Journalist. I also publish a data journalism and data visualization round-up newsletter called Fair Warning every Sunday.


Michael: Hello Soph. You are a Senior Data Journalist with the Office for National Statistics. Can you tell my readers a bit about what kinds of projects you are involved with on a day-to-day basis? How are your projects selected?

Soph: I see my role as helping to bring statistics to ordinary people who might not necessarily already understand them or why they are important. It’s my job to make statistics interesting enough that people engage with data, basically!

I work in a multi-disciplinary team, alongside designers and data visualization producers, and we always have to have statisticians involved as they need to sign off on how we use their data. I generally work on multiple projects at a time and they can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, so it really varies.

We select projects based on a whole variety of things but what’s really key is that we think it will help people in some way.

One of my favorite recent projects was a collaboration between my team and the Data Science Campus, which is an incredibly exciting and new-ish part of ONS where data scientists investigate how we can use data science techniques for the public good. The project was about how green your street is and it was a brilliant project where the dataset was created using machine learning, and we really had all hands on deck with all elements of the team working together to build something incredible. We don’t usually use 3D maps but we settled on using this way of visualization as a way to give people a sense of the richness of the greenery that would surround them if they were walking along the street. I’m so proud of it.

Michael: What are the primary tools you use to create your data visualizations to help tell your stories? Can you compare and contrast them a bit?

Soph: I don’t generally create and publish data visualizations as part of my role, as it’s more focused on the editorial/writing side of things. It’s about finding the story in the data and writing the headline and the article that results from finding the data.

The data vis team use JavaScript libraries like D3 normally. But, in looking at the data myself I will play around a little with data visualizations because I find it helps me to explore the data quite in-depth. I started using R to interrogate data towards the end of last year and I find it really useful for quickly scoping out any potential data vis we might want to use, but also in helping me answer questions like, what is the story here?

I personally try to get quite involved in the data vis and design elements of my projects because I have experience in visualization myself and I always have an opinion! I really enjoy the creative aspect of getting around a table and discussing how we’re going to do something or improving designs etc. I find that really exciting – I love bouncing ideas off of people and collaborating in that way – it’s one of my favorite parts of the job!

Outside of my work, I love playing around with data and creating visualizations and maps and all that sort of stuff. I am a real nerd!


Michael: You also sell some of the maps you have created on your blog. I really like your Number of Sheep in Wales map. Can you discuss why you feel this is an effective way to tell this story?

Soph: The funny thing about this map is that I made it about two months before I eventually moved to Wales, having never been there before. I had no idea I was going to move, and I’ve told people that before and no one believes me!

The idea for this came from one of my first editions of my newsletter Fair Warning. I had included a map of Australia (here) that had shaded areas to show sheep and wheat, and bits of it were marked “no sheep” and “some sheep” – it just made me laugh. Someone suggested I do one for Wales so that’s where this one came from.

Most of my professional work had been fairly straight-forward up until this point, basic charts and graphs, nothing too beautiful or whimsical. But I had been inspired by people like Mona Chalabi, Giorgia Lupi, and Stefanie Posavec to try to do something hand-drawn that was a bit arty and different. I’m quite a whimsical person really, and there’s this long-running joke of Wales having more sheep than people (this is absolutely true by the way!), and I thought doing it in a cartoony way would really kind of capture that absurdity somehow.

It wasn’t really so much a story as a random thought – I didn’t sketch it out at all, I just found the data, used my MacBook Pro as a lightbox, hand-drew the outline of Wales in a black pen ON my MacBook, and then took it off and started drawing little sheep icons. I actually drew every single one of them out by hand! I scanned it in and cleaned it up in Photoshop and that was it. It took me about an hour to make, but then I went back to it later and made adjustments like adding color etc.

Michael: I really like your Fair Warning newsletter (Link: I find it very informative and eclectic. Can you tell us a bit on how you prepare each edition of your newsletter? What makes a story newsworthy to include in your newsletter?

Soph: Thank you! I have been a bit inconsistent lately, mostly because I’ve been really busy pursuing hobbies and being invited out etc, so I feel like I am barely at my flat long enough to sit down and write it. It can take anything between two and four hours, I would say. It depends on how much success I have in finding things immediately. I used to try and gather links during the week and then sit down to write it on Saturday, scheduling for Sunday, but I’m barely in during weekday evenings so that’s stopped.

I tend to check the same websites/sources each week, but I feel like increasingly that isn’t going to be as interesting for people, so I spend quite a bit of time looking at other sources, forums, hashtags, etc to see if anything really cool comes up. Most people will have seen stuff that the Washington Post publishes, but they might not have seen some random person’s tweet about a cool visualization they’ve made. So I try to balance it between what ‘mainstream’ data journalists and vis producers are doing, and what other people outside the field are doing. The audience for Fair Warning is surprisingly diverse; I am constantly amazed at the different people that subscribe to it.

I would honestly say that in picking links to go in, I just go with my gut. I pick things that I like for whatever reason, sometimes because the data itself is new or interesting to me, or I have some kind of emotional response to it. Sometimes the visualization feels really technically advanced and different to anything I’ve seen before (I loved this NYT visualization about racial inequality). Sometimes I just like a visualization because it’s pretty or aesthetically pleasing. The map of rivers across the US is a great example of this. It completely blew me away. It’s just stunning, but on the face of it doesn’t seem like a big deal.

I try to maintain a balance in Fair Warning but it can be quite hard and some issues are (to me) not great, but I think that’s always going to be the case when you push yourself to do something on a regular basis. I feel quite strongly that it should be an extension of me and my personality rather than just a boring link round-up, and I think that slightly quirky tone is why a lot of people like it. I’m not trying to be anything I’m not, I am really honest and transparent generally, and I like that that comes across in Fair Warning. I would hope if people met me they’re like “Yeah, that’s the Soph I know!”

Michael: I think you are a great storyteller. What recommendations can you tell my readers on how to become an effective storyteller, whether it is written or visual?

Soph: I think the key thing about storytelling is that you are ultimately telling stories to humans, and humans are fascinated by other humans. So, if you try to make your stories about people in some way, then you’re onto a winner. The ‘how green is your street’ piece is ostensibly about greenery on streets, but actually what it’s asking of people is ‘do you know how green your street is?’ – how well do you know your area? A few people filled out a survey on the article and said that they disagreed with our figures because of course their street is more green than this number! And you think, ok, I probably did a good job with this if people are moved enough to bother writing to me about it.

The way I conceive of an article, personally, is I try to think, which ‘angle’ in the data would elicit an emotional response from people? Would someone read this thing and feel surprised? Angry? Will they immediately Google to see if it’s correct? Will they feel moved or connected enough to share it? It’s all about trying to connect people to data, by giving them the information they don’t know about themselves, or where they live, or the people they know. I like to think that people want to learn and be challenged.

It’s the same thing with data visualization – we’ve found that it’s quite good to let people place themselves in the data somehow, to provide personalized information back to them.

It’s the same thing with data visualization – we’ve found that it’s quite good to let people place themselves in the data somehow, to provide personalized information back to them.

I’ve gone on for a bit… I’ll strip it back to three recommendations:

  • The best stories are about people, so think of that aspect first
  • Be mindful of how someone who is ‘new’ to whatever you’re making might interpret it (ask a friend to tell you what they get from it!)
  • Familiarise yourself with rules about writing and different styles of writing, if you’re serious about it. Always write active sentences, write as if you’re telling a story to someone, and re-read what you’ve written to make sure it flows. Too many times I’ve seen people chop and change the structure of their story (which is fine) but they forget that doing that will completely change how the piece flows.


Michael: On Medium (link above), you discuss your recent move from London to Cardiff. I live in Arizona (suburban Phoenix) where houses are primary detached homes, and in most older areas, you have some land too (1/3 to 1+ acres). From reading your posts, it seems that affordable housing in London and Cardiff is similar to New York City where people tend to own small apartments or lofts, but pay high premiums for living in the city. Is that a fair characterization of what housing is like in London?

Soph: In London, for sure. The housing market there is bonkers. Absolutely bonkers. Young people are being priced out, and anecdotally lots of people I know have moved or considering moving. The problem is that London is where certain industries are based – journalism as an example, most national news outlets are based in London. If you want to go into specific careers you are kind of putting yourself at a disadvantage if you DON’T go to London. I think what we will see in the future is a greater pattern of people in their 20s and 30s just leaving London, perhaps living in commuter belts. I grew up in London so I love it very much but it’s a complicated city to have a life in, and I think what with it being so expensive…you are basically paying a premium to have a lower quality of life, and I think people will wake up to that soon.

Cardiff, although it’s a capital city, it is really tiny. And sure, bits of it can be really expensive – I was looking at buying in the city center and you obviously don’t get as much bang for your buck – but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than London. The flat I have would have cost probably twice as much in London, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. But Cardiff was (or is?) one of the fastest growing cities in the UK if not Europe, and it has a lot going for it.

Michael: What is next on your “To Do” list? What can the data visualization community expect to see from you in the near future?

Soph: This is a great question! I don’t have any plans set in stone but I have a lot of aspirations! I would love to do more experimenting with data and visualization in my own time – in fact, I have taken my first baby steps in joining the #TidyTuesday community which is a great way to find people doing similar things, access R scripts and see how different people tackle the same dataset. The problem, as always, is finding the time!

I really enjoyed my experimental look at encoding data in jewellery and other physical representations of data. I’ve had vague plans for a while to go back to doing some more experimentation, but haven’t managed to yet. It’s quite time-consuming!

Last year I did a few talks and workshops throughout the year and I’ve already given a short talk to some university students, introducing them to the basics of data visualization. I’d love to do some more talks or workshops this year. They make me nervous but I love sharing ideas and skills and getting new perspectives on things.

I’m also going to NICAR in Newport Beach in March, so am hoping to meet a few more people in the data vis/data journalism community.

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