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What is a data artist? A role for drawing IT and business together

What is a data artist? A role for drawing IT and business together

Data artists bridge the gap between business and IT by creating data visualizations that can be quickly understood by business leaders to help accelerate decision-making.

Charles Joseph Minard is arguably the world’s most famous data artist. By combining several data sets, including troop numbers, direction, temperature and terrain, he created in 1869 a visualization of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign. Though that military exercise ended in disaster, Minard’s map remains “one of the best statistical drawings ever created.”

Were he alive today, perhaps Minard would find success in the emerging role of data artist, thanks to the incredible volume and availability of data and the speed and processing power of modern technology. Today’s data artists bridge the gap between IT and business, creating visualizations from terabytes of obscure data that can quickly and easily be viewed and understood by business leaders to help accelerate decision-making and improve the odds of success.

Data artist role and responsibilities

With today’s emphasis on data-driven decision-making, the data artist role is quickly becoming critical, says Justin Langseth, CEO and founder of Zoomdata. While the rise of the data scientist has been a major step forward in helping organizations make sense of their data, a chasm of understanding remains between the technical data analysts and business professionals. That gap has necessitated a new role that combines the technical expertise of a data scientist with the creative abilities of artists and graphic designers, Langseth says.

“In the midst of all the conversations around AI, big data, machine learning, data-driven decision-making, we realized that more enterprises were trying to tell stories based on their data using infographics, but that wasn’t telling the whole story,” Langseth says. “The problem is that infographics are static — information is constantly streaming in and new data can mean new results. There’s also a comprehension gap — businesspeople not understanding the same ‘language’ that technical data scientists are speaking. So, a data artist bridges that gap by presenting the technical information in ways that are easy to understand, through visualizations.”

The benefits of hiring data artists

Data artists can help provide competitive advantage by improving an organization’s ability to make beneficial decisions fast. Because data artists also possess the skills to make data visualizations  interactive, businesspeople and IT leaders can perform “what-if” analysis and/or slice and dice data sets to home in on specific areas of importance, Langseth says. That means businesses can make better decisions faster — a key to keeping ahead of the competition, he adds.

“In IT, everyone has pretty much the same access to the best CRM system or whatever technologies are available,” Langseth says. “You’re not going to out-innovate competitively because of that tech alone, though. It’s what you’re able to do with that technology that matters. It’s going to be the companies who can make better decisions, faster, based on better data, that they can quickly and easily understand. With real-time analysis provided by data artists, you can experiment with different options and see different outcomes, and then figure out how to optimize your business for better results.”

For Charles Boicey, co-founder and chief innovation officer at cloud-based healthcare data visualization platform Clearsense, data artists help support better financial, operational and business — even clinical — outcomes.

“This is two-fold, for us, as a company serving the healthcare market. For IT and the business, it’s incredibly important, but also for clinicians, who have different needs when it comes to the data,” Boicey says. “If you can put patient data in a format where they can understand it at a glance, that can lead to better decision-making and better patient outcomes — which then circles back and leads to better business and financial outcomes, too.”

Data artist skills

Data artists have a unique combination of skills: part programmer, part data scientist and part visual artist, says Langseth. Data artists need computer science and programming skills to render data visually; data science skills to identify the relevant data and format it correctly; and visual design and creative skills to transform data into images that are easily digestible, he says.

“It’s such a hybrid position that requires all of these skills — JavaScript is one of the main languages used in this role, but also open source tools to help design custom visualizations. You also need to work closely with data scientists, so data literacy is key. And there’s even a bit of educational psychology involved, because you need to understand human beings’ visual processing abilities and how they understand information,” he says.

Data artist salaries

That combination of skills is so rare that data artists can almost name their price, Langseth says. While it’s easy to find JavaScript talent, it’s slightly more difficult to find data scientists with JavaScript experience. Add in an arts competency and the talent pool shrinks significantly; the demand for their skills coupled with the scarcity of supply is sending salaries skyrocketing. “I’ve heard stories — anecdotally — that even junior-level people in these roles in Silicon Valley can command up to $400,000 a year,” he says.

What to look for in a data artist

With such a specialized combination of skills, data artists can be very hard to come by. But it is possible to source talent that can be developed to fill the role. Clearsense’s Boicey searches for people with innate artistic skills and then provides training for technical mastery. Gamers also tend to have the right pre-existing skillsets to make a good fit for a data artist role, he says.

“It’s preferable to have the artistic skills first, because those are inherent — you either have them or you don’t,” he says. “Then, once you see someone’s portfolio of work and determine their ability, you can always train them on technical skills and on data analysis and processing. Gamers are a great fit, because they have that vision — they’re immersed in entire other worlds, so to speak. Folks who are already UX/UI professionals also have that combination of skills.”

Someday soon, many IT professionals could add “data artist” to their LinkedIn profile, Boicey says. As data artists become more common within enterprises, and more organizations integrate data visualization platforms into their solutions, end-users themselves will eventually develop amateur data artistry skills, Boicey says.

“The future of this is interesting, because so many technology applications are building data analysis and visualization tools into their offerings; I believe we’ll see more end-users developing the skills to create and customize their own visualizations based on their own company data, to benefit their organizations,” he says.

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