The Vizzualiser

Before there was CartoDB, there was Vizzuality. The company used visual information to tell stories about environmental issues for such organisations as the World Bank, Conservation International and the European Space Agency.

When the two Spaniards who founded the company decided to focus all their energies on CartoDB, they chose British marine geospatial researcher Craig Mills to take the reins as CEO at Vizzuality. Mills brought 15 years of experience in the UK government and UN Environment Programme to his new task.

Technologist: How did you become involved with Vizzuality and CartoDB?

Craig Mills: Around the time Vizzuality was founded, I was working at the UN Environment Programme and began to hear of the great work they were doing with biodiversity data. We ended up collaborating on a project to map every national park in the world. It was those early projects that created the ideas behind the CartoDB software. Over the following years, CartoDB developed into a full-blown product, allowing anyone to easily create maps online. Then in late 2014 Javier and Sergio decided to dedicate all their time to CartoDB. I wanted to make sure Vizzuality’s services didn’t disappear, so we agreed that I, David Gonzalez and Sergio Estella would take over the company.

T. What’s your relationship now?

C. M. Vizzuality still benefits from the great technology CartoDB is producing, and I like to think CartoDB benefits from seeing their software used in trying to solve some of the most important challenges of our time. We’re also still good friends.

T. How does Vizzuality help organisations?

C. M. There are some things we know: climate is changing, overall the environment is getting worse, and there is less food and water for more people. Technology is moving so fast, yet it hasn’t converged on improving the planet – not yet, anyway. Organisations trying to do good in the world need help telling these important stories with their data. Vizzuality can play an important role by finding meaning in vast volumes of data and building beautiful, data-driven online applications.

T. What’s the main challenge in communicating the narratives hidden in data?

C. M. Getting the data and finding the stories in the first place. When people see our work, they often pay attention to the design, the interactions, the new ways of looking at a dataset. Actually, a large part of our work lies in how we source, explore and prepare the data even before we design anything.

T. All the software you build to create visualisations is open source. What’s stopping competitors from muscling in?

C. M. People often ask that, but to be honest after eight years it hasn’t really happened. We’ve opened up our software because we want people to reuse what we’ve made, whether they are clients we work with or not.

T. What are Vizzuality’s strengths?

C. M. I like to use a quote from E. O. Wilson: “The ideal scientist is someone who thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper”. We try to apply that model. Our creativity is one part of what we do well, but it is the attention to every pixel that makes us stand out.

Further, where we really excel now is in making visualisations that help other people find their own stories and share them. The print media have been using visualisations for years. But if you make visualisations that allow the readers of an article to make their own serendipitous discoveries, that becomes pretty powerful.

T. Who are the people on your team?

C. M. The team consists of around 20 people spread across our Cambridge and Madrid offices. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds: biology, agriculture, architecture, international relations, climate change – a real mix.

T. Which current project is firing your imagination?

C. M. My favourite project right now is Global Forest Watch – the impact it has and the challenges of visualising such large volumes of satellite data make it great to work on.

T. And what has been the most surprising trend you exposed?

C. M. The trends we find are often not so surprising if you stop and think about them. Everyone knew people were chopping down trees, they have known that for years. But the scale and extent expressed in our visualisations really made people stop and give it some thought.

T. What’s the future of data visualisation?

C. M. With the Internet of Things we increasingly need technology platforms to handle huge volumes of data and help people find meaning in them. But in the future, computers will have a better understanding of objects and how they relate to one another. So it could be that people won’t need to look at the data anymore.