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computers can do good

I thought I was going to write about the Francesca Woodman exhibit I saw at SF MOMA today because it reminded me so much of my friend Courtney’s work from when we studied in Bordeaux together. Or I would write about the baby shower I hosted at work, talk about a different kind of social gathering. Or maybe this awesome glass blowing workshop I took at Public Glass. But I realized something bigger together about why I hate working at the computer all day long every day, in a grey cubical no less, and how it doesn’t have to be so.

I don’t like the computer because I’ve been using it wrong, for a long time. Most of my time at the computer is spent doing research using online sources (OK, pretty convenient compared to the library stacks, but I love libraries so not super convincing), making PowerPoint slides (blegh!) or writing in Word, and emailing. Most of these activities are tedious and are not made that much better by the computer.

Now for what I learned.

I spent this last week using Tableau data visualization software with a team of data modelers at work. I normally only work with qualitative data, within that I usually do ethnography and apply it to designing. So, this was stretchin’ a little for me. I loved it. We took 400,000+ records which would have been difficult, if not impossible, to work with by hand, and experimented with it in Tableau. Incredible interface (I <3 drag and drop), fun to use, and you learn by making. Your end result is interactive visuals, much more meaningful than the 1000s of records you started with, and much more interesting for your audience. You create stories for your audience so that they can play with the visuals you created and discover your results, while still giving them the room to draw their own conclusions. Such a breath of fresh air!

I only want to use the computer now when it’s worth the energy I put into it. Emailing is convenient, but think about what a hassle it creates too – I say we broke even there. (Oh course, I like being employed and will do the other stuff as a consequence of that.) Tableau, software that makes unreadable data fun and easy to understand? Worth it.

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