I hadn’t written a book before, let alone an international, open-source book with more than 50 contributors from 14 different countries.

It started with a message on Kickstarter:

Hi Trina! Stats dork from Chicago here….Do you have any plans to include tutorials for basic data cleaning and data selection techniques for users who may not have any statistics background?

At the time, I didn’t know that this one message would turn into a book, a community, and a global endeavor to make information design more accessible.

The message author, Dyanna Gregory, was a statistical programmer who knew the challenges of teaching university-level stats to those who don’t identify as math nerds. I was an entrepreneur building Infoactive, a web application to help people create interactive infographics and data visualizations. I was also a Reynolds Fellow at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute where my goal was to find ways to simplify the process of making data visualizations in newsrooms. I had launched a Kickstarter campaign to support Infoactive, and we had nearly 1,500 backers who were excited about breaking down barriers in data visualization.

We all believed in the vision of making data simple.

But working with data can be far from simple. Data come in all different shapes, sizes, and flavors. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to collecting, understanding, and visualizing information. Some people spend years studying the topic through statistics, mathematics, design, and computer science. And many people want a bit of extra help getting started.

Dyanna and I began talking about what a plain-language data resource would look like. Usability was a big priority for us. It’s hard to write a technical book that’s easy for less-technical readers to digest, but we believed that it was an important challenge to tackle. We wanted to create a free resource that was well-designed, joyful to read, and easy to understand.

Of course, the information would need to be accurate and we wanted to cover a range of different data concepts. We needed technical writers with an in-depth understanding of data, math, and statistics. We also needed editors who could comb over the content to make adjustments for simplicity and understandability and ensure that the chapters had a friendly, conversational tone. Our mission was to translate geek into non-geek — to make technical concepts more accessible to less-technical people.

Dyanna and I made a call for contributors. Neither of us expected to see such a strong, positive response. Frankly, it blew our minds. Messages began pouring in from people from all over the globe who told us about their experiences working with data and design, or their lack thereof. What struck me the most was the number of self-identified “non-math people” who were hungry for a resource that could introduce them to data concepts in a manner that was simple, approachable, and even fun. They were motivated to pitch in and volunteer their time to make it happen.

Dyanna and I kicked off the project in February with a Write-A-Thon in Chicago. We invited writers, data analysts, programmers, designers, and others to come together in person and talk about the project as a whole. We thought through the process, talked about data, opened up our laptops, and started writing.

After that, we contacted everyone who applied to contribute, and began figuring out who was going to do what. For an all-volunteer project with more than 50 contributors spread across many time zones, it was important to stay organized. We found project managers for different sections of the book, chose writers and editors for each chapter, and put together research and distribution teams. Chapter by chapter, the vision began to turn into a reality.

For me, the best part of this project was having the honor of working with some of the smartest, funniest, most creative people I’ve ever met. Again and again, I’ve been blown away by their creativity, passion, and support. I’m beyond grateful that I had the experience of creating this book with such an incredible group of people. Data + Design is truly a community effort.

This book isn’t a final product. It’s the beginning of a community process to improve our collective understanding of data and design. We’re releasing the first edition now, but we’re already working on more chapters for future releases and thinking about ways that we can improve. Together we can build upon it, translate it, transform it, and make it better with every iteration.

Data + Design is open source and available on Github. It’s free for anyone to read, download, remix, and re-distribute for noncommercial purposes. We invite you to join us. Email [email protected] to get involved.

I also want to thank the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) for supporting Data + Design. RJI’s support for journalism and data storytelling played an instrumental role in bringing this project to life.

Trina Chiasson
Co-founder & CEO, Infoactive
2013-2014 Reynolds Fellow