From before I even started at the Data School, there seemed to be this air of fear around the fabled Dashboard Week. For those that don’t know, dashboard week is essentially a whole week challenge that the Data School sets its students. The idea being that every day you are given a new dataset, and you must create five dashboards and five blogs over five days.

Everyone in the Data School says its brutal. So how do you survive dashboard week?

TIMEBOX WELL

Dashboard is really just an exercise in timeboxing. Knowing exactly how much time you have, and how much time what you plan on doing will take you. When time is scarce, you really have to have a solid plan on what tasks need to be done, and when those tasks absolutely need to be finished. By the time dashboard week starts, you will already have experience in timeboxing through all of the Friday Challenges and Client Projects.

Take the time to plan your day. For context, you’ll present the previous days dashboards until 11am, lose an hour for lunch, and have until 9am the next morning to work on it. But ideally you want to be done by the end of day (5.30pm). So you’ll have maybe six hours to do data exploration AND build a dashboard. Write a blog on the way home, or at home, or even on the way to work the next day.

CHOOSE A STORY QUICKLY

Data exploration can take more time than you think. To really get a solid understanding on a new dataset, you could spend a whole day getting to know every nook and cranny. But really, the data you need to understand is only the data that relates to the specific story you are trying to tell. So my advice is, pick a story that you really want to tell as soon as possible.

Picking a story can be difficult too however. When I choose a story, I will typically go by my first impression of the dataset. What questions do I think of when I pick up a dataset. What topics do I find personally interesting. For the Olympics, I chose a sport that is reasonably close to something I like to do and have always wondered. Same with VicRoads accident data. Same with the Giantbomb dataset. My vizzes told stories about things I wanted to know.

One trick I like to do is only read the column names. This gets me an understanding of what the overall data is about rather than what each datapoint is. But find what works for you, and just wait until the middle of the day to figure out what you want to tell a story about.

SCOPE SMALLER

Everyone wants to do something amazing. But be realistic with the time you have. Its better to deliver on something small, rather than fail to deliver on something big. Think about the story you want to tell, and only make the charts that are relevant to that story. Really if you can tell a story with two charts that link really well, why do you need to make more? One of the mistakes I constantly saw during dashboard week were people trying to pump in as many charts as possible to tell some story.

Most of my vizzes had two-three charts with a bunch of technical skills shown off. By scoping smaller, I think my overall stress levels were lower, and I had more time to perfect the polishes and the interactivity/ design of the viz. In fact, the one time I tried to do too much, I failed miserably and was stressed.

BE CREATIVE

Dashboard week is the only time during the Data School training that you will ever be able to make CREATIVE dashboards. All client project weeks are just reports and reports, and to be honest a lot of the job is just making reports. All creative endeavors occur outside of the Data School. But really, most people who are passionate about data don’t dream about making reports.

So my advice is, to increase your overall enjoyability of this week. Try not to make any reports at all. Try not to do anything too serious. Choose topics you are interested in, and make dashboards that you would never make for a client. Focus on your designs and make them aesthetically pleasing. This week is the only time aesthetics > information is a possibility.

CHALLENGE YOURSELF (but not too much)

Finally, you should challenge yourself to new things. Try charts that you think would really show that insight but you’ve never had the chance to use. Dashboard week is also about showing off your skills, and picking up new ones. You’ll be ecstatic when you nail that chart that was technically difficult. But don’t get too ahead of yourself, some charts look cool but really aren’t worth the effort.

CONCLUSION

Dashboard week is tough, but if you frame your mindset correctly, you really will enjoy it. I know I did. Try not to think about each dashboard as merely a task you need to deliver. But rather a chance to challenge yourself, and do something amazing (even if you hate the data).

Kevin Prescilla
Author: Kevin Prescilla

As a late-stage PhD candidate, Kevin’s appreciation for data analytics grew during his studies into poultry nutrition, or as he calls it, “chickens”. It was this appreciation which spurred his decision to change career paths and ultimately led him to apply to the Data School. In his spare time he enjoys powerlifting – ever challenging himself to beat his last max weight - as well as all kinds of gaming, from board to PC. If Kevin could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why? Well, the answer is Antarctica, as he is fascinated with how people can live and survive down there (although some might argue because it’s the furthest place you can go on Earth from a chicken).