2022 in Review
Every ten days or so, I share a quick digest of what I've been working on and reading. This edition rounds up the whole of 2022 instead. More in the series here.
It was a good year for my information design work - I was booked up pretty solidly for almost the entire twelve months, forced to turn clients away on several occasions. I've been freelance for more than ten years now, but several times during that span I've been working almost entirely for a single client. Right now I'm esentially working 50% for the London-based climate charity Possible, and 50% for other clients that come along.
And what a lot of clients I managed to cram into that 50% this year! As well as Possible, I worked for Conservation International, The Health Foundation, Mojang, Infogr8, Immediate Media, the Center for Effective Altruism, Project Drawdown, the University of East London, Riding Sunbeams, Generous Ventures, Ellipsis Earth, Graphic Hunters, and Swiss jazz musician Simon Petermann.
I'm proud to say that 74% of my income this year came from information design, about 57% came from working with non-profits, and about 55% was directly connected to climate change solutions. These things are extremely important to me, and I count myself very lucky that I can earn a living doing what I love.
Some of the public-facing projects I'm most proud of working on this year include:
- Being the lead editor and doing most of the dataviz for the Exponential Roadmap: Natural Climate Solutions.
- Dataviz for the Drawdown Lift report, which explores the connections between climate solutions and poverty alleviation.
- Building the School Streets and Parklet Plotter maps for Possible - the first time I've been paid to deliver code, rather than just words or pictures.
- Dataviz for the most recent update of Project Drawdown's analysis of the impact of different climate solutions.
- Design and dataviz for the Nobody Left Behind report, which explores how car-free-cities can accomodate people with disabilities.
- Design and dataviz for the Missed Targets report, which looks at how the aviation industry has missed, abandoned or just forgotten about pretty much every sustainability target it set in the past 20 years.
- Design and dataviz for the Delayed Responses report, which looks at how excess traffic and congestion prevent ambulances and fire engines from getting to their destination.
- Dataviz consulting for the American Opportunity Index, which explores which US employers offer the greatest worker mobility.
- Building the website for the Fixing Factory, getting deep into Squarespace in the process.
- Contributing to the Ellipsis Educate programme, sharing what I do as an information designer to an audience of kids in schools across the world.
If there's anything you'd like to know more about in the above list, or want to hire me to work on a project for you in 2023, then don't hesitate to get in touch.
Sonification and Music
The sonification journey that I've been on for the past three years expanded in new and interesting directions in 2023 - including commercial work, tools development, and education.
The biggest sonification project I worked on this year was as a consultant for Swiss jazz musician Simon Petermann in his Waking the Giants project that was exhibited at the COP27 climate conference. My sonification collaborator, Miriam, and I created distinct sonification approaches for 18 different climate datasets, which were then turned into a full-length live performance piece.
Another high-profile project was my work on Noisy Cities with Karim Doueïb, which sonifies noise pollution data in Paris, New York and London. The interactive map was featured in the Daily Mail, Metro, Flowing Data, Fast Company, Nightingale, and a tonne of other places.
In October, Miriam and I delivered a sold-out sonification workshop to an audience of journalists, data scientists, and information designers in Amsterdam, in partnership with Graphic Hunters. It was a real challenge, taking everything that we do and neatly packaging it up for a general audience. But I think we did a solid job, and we got great feedback. We'd love to deliver more sonification workshops in 2023, if that's something you'd be curious to explore.
I put a lot of effort this year into building tools that allow non-coders to do sonification work. First I released a sonification script for the Monome Norns music computer. It's a really lovely platform to use, there are a tonne of incredible scripts, and it interfaces beautifully with other music hardware (including modular synths). Unfortunately the global semiconductor shortage makes it very difficult to get hold of a Norns right now, so this doesn't help much in broadening access to sonification.
So I turned my attention to VCV Rack - a modular synthesizer simulator that you can run on your computer. It's a wonderful way to experience the joy of modular synths without the eye-watering cost of the physical hardware. I coded up a virtual module that lets you import a CSV file and turn its peaks and troughs into digital signals that can be sent to other modules. You could use your data to control a volume knob, for example, or distortion, or send it into a quantiser to make it musical then send that signal into the pitch control of an oscillator. I find it a joy to use, if only because I'm still kinda mind-blown that I managed to learn enough C++ to build it. I'm still not sure how that happened.
I gave a nice broad collection of talks to different audiences this year on the subject of sonification. I spoke to a dataviz crowd at Dataviz Zurich, on Bill Shander's LinkedIn Learning show, and on a panel at Viscomm. I spoke to students at the University of East London in one of their classes. I spoke to sonification experts about storytelling at SoniHED, and to more general sci-comm audiences at MEET in Milan and The Sound of Data in Luxembourg. Most excitingly, I did almost all of this without taking a single plane flight. All but the Luxembourg trip, which I tagged onto the workshop above and reached by train, were carried out from the comfort of my studio in Helsingborg. I'm proud to say that I no longer fly for work purposes, only to see family back in the UK once a year - and I'm hoping to make that a train trip this year too.
I also put a lot of effort into levelling up my musical skills in 2022, mostly because I love music and want to understand it better, but also so I can make better sonifications. I run through a couple of simple music theory drills each morning with Tone Gym, I set aside two hours every Sunday to practice and make music, and I also engage the services of a coach/tutor/teacher - the amazing Bryan Noll, a.k.a. Lightbath. I meet with Bryan once a month, and we chat for an hour or so about the music I'm making and how I can best further my abilities. I look forward to it every time. Between my daily practice, weekly deep-dives, and monthly coaching, I feel like I'm getting much better much faster than I would be if I was just doing things ad-hoc. Structure is a hell of a drug.
This year I also really enjoyed working on Signal Chain - my creative collaboration with photographer Oliver Holms. We completed season one in May, and just launched season two in December. If you like nice photos and nice music, it's a lovely thing to get in your inbox twice a month. Go sign up.
This year was the first full year of the Elevate Learning Community - my work with Alli Torban, Gabrielle Merite and Will Chase to curate a warm, welcoming space where people can boost their dataviz skills alongside a friendly community of fellow travellers.
We've learnt a lot along the way, making several adjustments to how we do things. In 2023, we're going to lean even harder into the community aspects and reduce the amount of work that Alli, Gabby, Will and myself need to put into it on a weekly basis. At the same time, we're dropping the membership fee from $50/$25 per month to a flat $10 monthly rate. There's still a bit of work that needs to be done to put all the changes in place behind-the-scenes, but they should be live within the next week or so. If you'd like to join our growing community, head over to elevatedataviz.com.
Elevate wasn't the only community-focused project I launched in 2023. In December I also booted up Decibels- a home on the web for people doing, or curious about, data sonification work. We've already set up a monthly sonification challenge, monthly community meetups over video chat, and a knowledgebase to allow people to share their skills and experience. If that sounds fun, then come join the community.
Otherwise, I spent a lot of 2022 moving away from public social media platforms and into smaller, less shouty ones. I quit Twitter on 26 April, as the first rumblings of Musk's takeover emerged. Then I drifted back as he tried to wriggle out of the deal, then I quit for good when the deal was done. I've started using Instagram a little more again, but generally the best places to find me are right here in your inbox, on Mastodon and the Lines community, and of course in Decibels and Elevate.
Finally, this year I made a few efforts to participate in real, physical communities again. I joined the Danish Modular Society (there's no Swedish one, and Copenhagen is close), Helsingborg's Climate Agreement, and a local food co-op (which has sadly since shut down). My Covid-induced discomfort with being in small spaces with other people has diminished since getting my fourth vaccination (still haven't had it...) and so I'm trying to push myself a bit more to be sociable again.
Goals for 2023
I have a handful of goals for 2023, and they mostly revolve around my long-term aims of going deeper not wider, and ending each year happier and healthier than I began it.
I want to continue to push my sonification skills, but spend less time on tools and more time on actually making sonifications. I'd love to prepare and play a live show based around sonification. I'd also love to give another workshop to a paying audience.
I want to continue to build Elevate and Decibels into thriving and healthy communities, full of people doing and sharing amazing work.
I want to continue to do impactful work on climate change and with non-profits - using my skills to make the world a better place.
I want to build up some solid habits around exercise, and dedicate more time to safeguarding my physical and mental health.
To help with that, I want to take a bit more time off work than I did in 2022 - I've planned for two week-long walks in the spring and autumn, as well as a couple of week-long periods spent in a small cottage in the woods.
Finally, I'd like to progress my Elevate-connected project of developing a pattern language for dataviz. I've made a solid start, but progress has stalled and I want to get back into it again.
Phew - that was a lot. A solid year. As a reward for those of you who made it to the end, I've compiled a Spotify playlist of my favourite songs released in 2022. There are 30 of them, and they range wildly across genres so there are almost certainly some you'll love and some you'll hate. Me? I love all of them, but I've tried to sequence it so songs flow thematically into each other to some extent. Listen in playlist order.
That's it for 2022. I'm going to take a short break from my regular notes (more like weeks than months) before coming back with the next issue a little later in 2023. In the meantime, you can reach me whenever you like with an email.
See you soon!