What Jobs Are There in Data Visualization?

Posted to Visualization

I got an email from Harald asking, "How does the job market for DV developers work?" I find this question, or some variation of it, in my inbox every now and then, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I am after all a graduate student who will graduate eventually, so let's take a look at some of the options. I'd like to expand on the question though, and not just focus on developers. What's the job market like for anyone who wants to do data visualization for a living?

In the News

Infographics in the news have been commonplace for a while now. Maps, charts, graphs, plots, etc. are in the newspaper every day, and as news on the Web continues to expand, so do the types of interactive visualizations. In fact The New York Times has its own graphics department as well as a group dedicated to online interactives. It's only a matter of time before the other big news organizations follow suit (unless they go bankrupt first).

Examples: The New York Times / MSNBC / Washington Post

Design Studios

There are a lot of data visualization specialists who masquerade as graphic designers. As a result, there are lots of design studios that do data visualization (although they don't focus on just that alone) that do work for the Web or a slew of other things like company branding, physical installations, or simply art pieces. I can only think of a handful of design groups that are specifically known for data visualization. Either way though, most stuff that the studios push out are more on the artistic end of things, naturally.

Examples: Stamen Design / Bestiario

Analytics Groups

Analytics is on the opposite site of the spectrum. It's all about decision-making. Businesses are starting to rack up terabytes of data per day, but aren't sure what to do with it. Basic Microsoft Excel skills will only take you so far. You'll also hear about dashboards pretty often. Think lots of graphs and lots of charts and lots of data which takes a certain statistical expertise to manage effectively.

Example: Juice Analytics / Axis Maps

Research Labs

While the analytics groups tend to be more about application of existing visualization techniques, there are research labs that primarily think of ways to improve the existing or new representations of data. They design, experiment, analyze, and then write papers. It's like getting paid to be a graduate student, I imagine. Visualization software companies not dissimilar to FlowingData sponsors might also be bundled into this group.

I visited AT&T research labs a few months ago, and there was a small group focused on the best way to show network graphs. The IBM Visual Communications Lab does a lot with social data analysis.

Examples: AT&T Labs / IBM Visual Communications Lab

Academics

This one is sort of obvious I guess. Academics is similar to working in a research lab, and really, a lot of academic groups call themselves a research lab anyways. Often you'll see collaboration between the two. The only difference is, uh, professors have to put up with graduate students like me. Tough nookies.

Examples: Berkeley Visualization Lab / MIT Media Lab

Freelancing

A lot of businesses aren't looking for a full-time visualization person. They just need some help with things here and there. There are also a lot of online developments that can benefit from having some visualization. Some have already got developers, but want some aesthetics, while others might have a specific data set that they want realized - might be just for show or actually something quantitative. There's certainly a wide variety out there.

Examples: Daniel McLaren / Moritz Stefaner / Jon Peltier

What About You?

That covers a good bit, but I'm almost certain that I've missed something. If your expertise is data visualization, what do you do for money? I, among many others, would be interested to know in the comments.

10 Comments

  • I’m not a data visualization expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do have an interest in the field, so I’ve been keeping my eye on things for a while now. When it comes to jobs, though, I have what I believe to be an interesting experience.

    Last year, I wrote a couple blog posts about the Google Chart API, just laying out my first impressions. Shortly after, I received a request to speak at some new Web API conference about it. More interestingly, I was approached and interviewed for a position as Data Engineer. I didn’t pursue it very far, because it’s really not my area of expertise, but it’s just fascinating to me how far a couple blog posts can go in getting a foot in the door.

  • That’s what I like to call low supply, high demand

  • As usual, great post Nathan. I would add, tentatively, to this list something like “civic activism” as there are a number of designers and visualizers getting involved in things like transparent government and affecting social change.

    Two examples come to mind. The work of the Sunlight Foundation and the Spatial Information Design Lab. Granted the latter could be lumped in with academia, but I think it also shows a growing need within architecture and planning for effective visualization to improve practice within the field.

    cheers!

  • @Adam – thanks. Both of those are new to me

  • I work in data visualization in the sporting arena. Television & print media are always looking for a new graphical way to tell the story of the game or the season. Sporting clubs recognise that their players and coaches are very visually oriented for their information, and will buy products which give them a compelling view of the wealth of data. They want a headline message to help them with instant decision-making during the game, and an analytical tool for planning & review. Well, the good ones do! It’s a niche field but it’s been fun inventing new ways of looking at the game.

  • Bernard Lebelle December 11, 2008 at 5:26 am

    Not per se as a “core job description” but data visualisation skills are required in strategic & management consultancy. The ability to do so massive number-crushing and to build up high-impact visuals to provide feedback to client is essential.

  • There’s also the development of generic products that can be used in any of the above categories (e.g., Google Charts), although I suppose this might fit under “research labs.”

    And you bring up an interesting point with visualization techniques being used in design studios. My flex graphviz tool has been picked up for use as a “flashy navigation interface” in a couple sites, though it was really designed for visualizing data. I guess both design and visualization are about communicating information so they get a lot of interplay.

    Thanks for yet another interesting read and for the plug. (-:

  • Hi Nathan – Another way to find work is to think in terms of industry verticals. Think anything to do with “management” / “infrastructure” / “finances.” I personally know people who do a lot of visualization work in Business mgmt consultancies, Financial services and brokerages, Utilities, defense/DARPA, and of course, dedicated software companies. As importantly – for every one of these verticals, there is a plethora of companies looking to provide software or services for them.

    In terms of earning a living, I personally have worked for software design consultancies and small software companies. I’ve worked all over the map on projects, from network-security to financial applications to business analytics. Granted, I’m not totally focused on data visualization, but I would say that I’ve spent roughly 50% of my 11 working years on some form of it. In my experience, there are only a very few dedicated jobs – I personally know 2 professors, 1 freelancer, 2 people who work for well-known print outlets, and 2 people who work for large software companies that have the title “visualization something or other.” However, many software developers and designers I know spend most of their time doing this work (it’s not in their title, but part of their job). IMO, there’s plenty of demand, but less-visible and less-sexy than the projects that come out of academia. (Or maybe I’m in the wrong crowd!)

    hope that helps – (great blog, btw!)