Don't stop learning
An exclusive interview with Mohamad Waked, the author and designer of Migration Between Search & Reality
Last week, a data story on migration went viral on social media; you may recognise it from the image above. It’s my favourite kind of story: meaningful, insightful, and delightful to look at. So for this week’s edition of The Plot, I’m thrilled to present an interview with the author of the piece, Mohamad Waked. He shares his process, tips, and even some of his trade secrets!
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Hi! Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to the readers of The Plot. Could you please introduce yourself?
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me. I’m Mohamad Waked, an independent data visualization designer, based in Cairo. I’ve been passionate about designing things and playing with numbers since I was a child. I graduated as a mechanical design engineer but later I turned into a data scientist, then into a data visualization designer, and recently into a data journalist. I founded Alhadaqa—my personal dataviz lab. Through it, I make dry data interesting to people through a series of personal dataviz projects on a variety of topics: serious ones like migrants or natural disasters, and light ones like horror movies or football.
What triggered the Migration Between Search & Reality project? What was the very first step in your process?
Everything started when I received an email from Alberto Cairo, asking me if I would like to create a project for Google under his management and art direction. The only constraint was that Google search/trends data had to be a part of it. Of course, I found it a good opportunity to work closely with experts like Alberto Cairo and Simon Rogers and experience how they think. I was also excited by the freedom to select a topic that I care about. Actually, this personal curiosity and freedom to explore is what connects all of my projects.
After our first meeting, I was asked to suggest a few topic ideas. We eventually agreed that measuring the gap between the reality of the world’s migrants and their search was the most interesting one. I was happy with the selection as it built on one of my previous projects—The Unwelcomed—on migrants and refugees who are dying while attempting to cross international borders.
So the choice of topic was the starting point and a very interesting journey of exploration and design unfolded after.
Could you tell us a little more about how you craft your storyline? Do you follow a traditional narrative arc? Or any other techniques (the hero’s journey, 7-point structure, etc.)?
This is a very good question, especially for this project, for two reasons. First, it’s one of the most data-complicated projects I’ve ever worked on. Second, it includes a lot of interesting data angles and insights. So crafting a simple storyline that balanced data explanation and data exploration was a challenge.
I selected the scene at Kabul Airport—when the United States was completing its withdrawal from Afghanistan—as an inciting incident. It was a popular event reported on the news all over the world, so many people could relate to it. It also created a link between the East and the West in a single shot. I then followed Freytag’s model which is one of my favorite frameworks, and added a reader-customizable ending.
I understand the data collection for this project was quite an arduous undertaking. What did you learn from it?
Yes, you can’t imagine!! Collecting migration search interest data took about 2 weeks. I coded an R program that was collecting the data of each country in the world using ten of the world’s most spoken languages for the period between 2005 and 2020. See a snapshot of the data mining process below!
I learned two important lessons from it. First of all, data is the pearl of this project. And as you know, pearls don't lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it. Second, connecting two datasets can add impact. I mixed search interest data that represents people's interests, desires, and dreams together with the UN migration data that represents the reality of the world's migrants.
How did you choose the creative direction for the piece?
That’s one of my little secrets. There’s always an inspiration behind my creative design decisions. It might take a while to find this inspiration at the beginning of the project, but once I do, it becomes my piece of gold. It’s always next to me while I think through the different design decisions throughout the project.
When I was doing my research for this project, I got inspired by the golden jellyfish. What's amazing about these little creatures is that they spend much of their lives on daily migration—following the sun’s arc across the sky. This echoes what migrants do, too: they travel following this little spark of light at the end of the road. If you have a closer look at the large circular data visualization at the end of the story, you might notice how similar it is to a big round jellyfish. The two inner maps imitate groups of jellyfish swimming together. Also, once you click on any of the countries, you’ll see a clear front view of a jellyfish.
Now, a million-dollar question! You seem to be great at it all: data analysis, storytelling, coding, design… How do you do it? What’s your secret?
It's a really tough question to answer. My life experiences have had a major role in shaping what I do now. Since childhood, I’ve had artistic inclinations. I love drawing, and at the same time, I love making things and playing with numbers. My entry into the Faculty of Engineering reinforced these interests, especially in design, mathematics, and statistics. Design principles are almost the same among different fields.
Then, after that, I worked as a process analytics engineer in an automotive manufacturing company and later got a specialized degree in data science from Johns Hopkins University. My love of logical thinking eases the task of learning R and D3.js, although I do not like programming as much as I love design and data science. But the thing that drove me to learn it is my extreme desire to have full control over all aspects of a given project :)
One other little secret. I don’t stop learning. In many different fields. On a regular basis, I read books, take courses, and follow other experts and practitioners. I also experiment with new methods and techniques all the time—I think it’s essential for any practitioner.
One last question. What advice do you have for our readers who are just starting out? What do you wish you’d known at the very beginning of your data visualization journey?
So many! But if I had to choose just one, I’d say: start immediately. Find data that you are interested in, and then think about how you can turn it into visualization that makes people care as much as you do.
I hope you enjoyed this inspirational interview with Mohamad as much as I did! You can follow him on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or view his other projects on his website.
Next week, I’ll be enjoying the S-H-O-W conference in Utrecht, so this newsletter will skip a beat. I’ll be back right after though with the highlights of the event, as I’m sure there will be many!
Thank you for reading.
Really fascinating interview, thank you!