Shirley Wu
NET|August 2019

Shirley Wu, one half of the popular Data Sketches project, creates highly interactive, beautiful data visualisations. Here she gives us a look behind the scenes and shares the lessons she’s learned.

Oliver Lindberg
Shirley Wu was introduced to data visualisation JavaScript library D3.js during her first job as a front-end software engineer at a big data company in San Francisco. She slowly fell in love with the tool because it combined her two main passions: art – Wu started drawing and painting when she was four years old – and maths. No wonder she describes herself as three-quarters code and one quarter art on Twitter.

Just four years after graduating from university, Wu took the plunge and went freelance to create data visualisations fulltime. She visualises a wide variety of topics covering culture, politics, art and more. Wu names three projects, all released in 2017, as major influences on her career. The first one, Data Sketches (www.datasketch.es), is a collaboration with fellow data visualisation designer Nadieh Bremer from Amsterdam, which introduced the duo to the data-viz community. The idea was to choose a topic every month, create a visualisation each and document the entire process – from the data preparation and the sketching of ideas to the execution.

“The write-ups were just an afterthought,” Wu remembers, “but it turned out to be what people like the most. They come up to us and tell us how amazing it is to look behind the scenes and see the iterations beyond the polished end result. It was a really quick idea but it took us a very long time to name the project. We have a whole document full of names. One of my favourites is Shirley’s and Nadieh’s Visualisation Marathon Adventure. Obviously we didn’t go with that one!”

The second project that put Wu on the map was an interactive visualisation of every line in the musical Hamilton for The Pudding (pudding.cool/2017/03/hamilton/ index.html), an online publication that explains ideas debated in culture with visual essays from visual storytelling studio Polygraph. The project, which analyses 21,000 words for relational and thematic insights and uses D3, React and HTML5 Canvas, taught Wu to be curious and creative with data gathering. It won Bronze in the Arts, Entertainment & Pop Culture category of the 2017 Information is Beautiful Awards, while Data Sketches took Gold in the Unusual category.

Then Google came knocking. Under the artistic direction of data journalist Alberto Cairo, Google News Lab collaborated with the best data-viz designers around the world. Cairo had come across Data Sketches and invited Wu to dig through a decade of travel searches from nearly 40 countries to explore the top searched cultural locations (explore-adventure.com), while Bremer analysed the most popular words to be translated into English through Google Translate (www. beautifulinenglish.com).

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