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Iron Viz – Virunga

After wanting to participate in the Iron Viz for quite some time, I have now been able to carry it through and submit my first Iron Viz.

For those who don’t know, Iron Viz is a Tableau data visualisation competition where you have 4 weeks to investigate a subject (set by Tableau) and visually present your findings to the wider community via Tableau Public. The winner of each one of the three Iron Viz rounds is then selected to participate on the Tableau conference stage competition, and produce a visualisation within 20 minutes and using a common dataset.

For this round, I felt lucky enough to have ‘Safari’ as the subject to explore and visualise my findings.

Although the theme was very interesting and compelling, I came to realise that it wasn’t as easy as I first thought it would be. Almost as soon as I started I stumbled upon my first difficulty – where to focus on? What would be my question? Or what was my objective (apart from participating in the Iron Viz)?

From then on, things only got worse…. When looking for data and for some inspiration, I started picturing what I could analyse. My first requirements were:

  1. Something that I would like to learn more about

  2. A subject that needed exposure

  3. A positive outcome, not only highlighting what is wrong in the world but something that could be inspiring

After much reading, researching and some frustrating moments caused by the lack of data, Dian Fossey and her friend Digit came to mind.

Diana was a zoologist, primatologist and anthropologist that carried out an extensive 20 yearlong study on the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. She was also the author of the book ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and unfortunately was murdered in 1985 in the Virunga Mountains, possibly due to her active opposition to poaching.

I had finally found a subject, 3 days prior to the submission date. Now I needed to find the data, doing the so much needed ETL process and then visualise it in Tableau. Quite simple, no?!

If you work with data, you already know what follows;

No, it wasn’t simple. Far from it, it was the beginning of all difficulties and blockings.

Stage 1 – Finding Data

Difficulties: no data or very scarce data was available. The data that was available was mainly within articles or news.

Positives: I stumbled upon the Virunga Park Rangers story, their selfless heroism and amazing work on conservation. The mountain gorilla’s conservation is one of the rare stories of conservation success. (There it was! – my positive story and the reason why I should viz about)


I read numerous articles and newspapers about: the park, poaching, the Rwanda war, conflicts, rangers deaths, the families they left behind, their $30 monthly salary and their courage and dedication. I managed to collect the data manually from the articles, movies/ documentaries and ted talks.

Stage 2- Storytelling

Difficulties: how to summarise the story of the park, the rangers work, initiatives to avoid militias and the gorillas story itself. On the other hand, not much quantitative data was available.

Positives: I could approach not only the animal conservation side of the story but also the local population survival and sustainability


Divide the story into 3 distinct parts: park and population, mountain gorillas, finalising it with the ranger’s story, accomplishments and a call for action

Stage 3- Layout and Analysis

Difficulties: scarce quantitative data; difficulties to dissociate from infographic type of visualisation and some extensive contextual descriptions and introductions. Not much opportunity for an explorative analysis.

Positives: I could guide the user through the story I wanted to tell.


Use of long form to create 3 different areas of visualisation without leaving the initial dashboard. Started with an introduction about the park and how its existence is not only helping the animals but also the local population. Finishing on a high note and a call for action, showcasing the love of the people who make everything possible. Once again, trying to express that more times than not, behind each number we analyse there is a personal story, a success or even the loss of a loved one. We analyse much more than numbers!

Stage 4 – The use of images and ‘beautification’

Difficulties: weighting the pros and cons of imagery; when visual aids stop enhancing your story and become clutter.

Positives: images draws attention, captures the eye longer than just plain facts. By adding pictures, I could personalise many of the heroes that everyday risk their lives so my future generations can have the opportunity to see a gorilla not only on a page of a book or web.


Using imagery as an aid to my message. The use of images to intensify your message is a current technic. Campaigns against smoking, after using numerical facts on the cigarette packages for some time as a vehicle to discourage smoking, have now moved on to use pathology photos, as this proved to have a higher impact on the user – ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’

What was my take on participating in the Iron Viz?


  1. I learned about Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian prince and director of the Virunga National Park. Of his dedication and courage; even after being ambushed and almost killed he returned to his work and kept risking his life every day for what he believes in

  2. I saw rangers sharing moments of loss, friendship and suffering with animals as if they were part of the same family

  3. A gratitude and respect for the people that are forced to use guns and rocket launchers as a working tool, so they can save part of the planet we live in.


  1. I practiced the use of floating containers

  2. I used for the firts time several photos in a loop (thank you Jonni Walker for your help on this)

  3. Learned a lot from the other Iron Viz entries – story layout, polygons, the capacity of thinking outside the box, etc.

Thoughts on:

Infographic type of visualisation –  the data didn’t allow other type of visualisation. Should I have chosen other subject or not participate in the iron viz?

No, how could I give up on one of the few successful conservation stories? Especially where the data is collected on extreme circumstances of war, death, genocide and famine

Should this theme been excluded of my consideration just because it did not offer the flexibility to showcase technical skills? My answer is again no. It offered me something as rich as technical skills –  the capacity of storytelling with a small amount of data points.

Long form –  this is personal choice. In my opinion, my story would lose impact if I had split it into distinct dashboards or used a wide form. There is a use case for everything and there are exceptions to the rule. Something that I have learned a long time ago from medicine is: ‘Never say never and never say always’

Beautification and imagery – as I have written above, images can be used as enhancers or signposts to your story. In my case I also used them as a personalisation factor, the people and the animals behind the numbers. Also, data visualisation in my view isn’t just about creating a chart, it is also about capturing the attention of the user, engage them on what you are showing (that’s why layout, colour, font and shape are so important)

Iron Viz participation- as there wasn’t deep analysis or great number of charts on my piece of work, should I have refrained from participating in the Iron Viz?

No…after all I participated because the subject was of interest to me, my work and intention to raise awareness would touch more people (I hope) by participating in the Iron Viz than just adding it to my public profile. Also, the criteria of participation isn’t purely based on 100% analysis.

Feeling deflated because other entries are amazing – no, that cannot be the case. The other participant entries and jaw dropping skills, allow me to want to learn more, to improve and close any gaps on my knowledge. It also allows me the possibility to reach out to them and learn from this amazing selfless community.

In conclusion, my participation in the Iron Viz has been very positive. I learned so many new things and above all I’m honoured that my work is being considered alongside such a great pool of talent.

To all the participants I wish you the best of luck and to the prospect entrants, don’t miss the opportunity to have a great amount of fun, learn from amazing people and possibly help a good cause.

Making a difference one number at a time….

Virunga- ironviz
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