AMA: I'm Nicholas Felton (aka Feltron), an information designer in NYC.

over 7 years ago from , Designer at Feltron.com

Hi. I'm Nicholas Felton… you might also know me as Feltron (feltron.com). I’m probably best known for my ongoing Annual Report project. I also contributed to the design of Facebook’s timeline and have launched a few other products with collaborators including Reporter for iPhone (2014) and Daytum.com (2009).

If you have any questions for me, I’m happy to answer them here for the next hour.


  • Wontae YangWontae Yang, over 7 years ago

    I'm big fan of the annual reports! What tools do you use to create the visualizations? How much do you manually illustrate vs code using graphic libraries or visual programming languages?

    7 points
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago

      Thank you! When I started doing data viz, I would either build things by hand or use a spreadsheet to generate a PDF. In about 2009, I started using Processing (processing.org) to help automate my process. I learned how to code well enough to start making all of my charts and maps in the app and have been happily using it since then. I've also started sharing some of my code on GitHub (https://github.com/feltron) and will be sharing my process for making maps with large data set in an online course next year.

      9 points
      • Sam GoldSam Gold, over 7 years ago

        Thanks for sharing! I've been looking into doing data viz, and Processing was one of the languages I was most intrigued by, and this kinda sealed the deal! Really appreciate your taking the time.

        1 point
  • Matt AchariamMatt Achariam, over 7 years ago

    Hello Nicholas, thank you for taking the time to join us today. Needless to say, your design work centering around personal data, charts and daily routines has been incredibly inspiring to the design community. I’d like to begin with a few questions.

    1. In your career you’ve taken the leap on different occasions and gone out on your own instead of working for someone else. Can you talk a little about your thought process and doubts leading up to the decision?
    2. What are the biggest challenges you face when putting out the annual report?
    3. People might be unaware but you had an influential role in designing Facebook’s Timeline. Can you talk a little about the work dealing with a project that has such a wide impact?
    4 points
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago

      Thanks for the invitation Matt… to answer your questions:

      1. I tend to flip-flop on my view of self-employment vs employers. Sometimes I think that there is more opportunity outside of a job to have impact, while at other times, the most influential thing I can do is for another company.

      2. The Annual Report continues to get bigger and more challenging every year. There is more data to parse, and more things that I've done before (and don't want to repeat). I've always felt that if I couldn't do something new, it wouldn't be worth putting out… and sometimes it takes a long time to get to that point.

      3. The timeline project was certainly a high point in my career. From the time I started, we had a pretty short deadline to produce, but a ton of dedicated and incredibly talented engineers and designers on the task. Working on something like that is really at a scale greater than any individual can comprehend, so the most rewarding moments came from seeing how people used and embraced the product.

      3 points
  • Alex CornellAlex Cornell, over 7 years ago

    This is a silly question, but I'm curious, what led you to start going by the moniker "Feltron" (besides the fact that it's awesome). I'm sure it's led to some confusion (people calling you Nicolas Feltron etc). Would be interested to hear your thoughts on the name, and how your perspective has evolved over the years.

    3 points
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago

      Hi Alex… it's not a silly question, and has certainly led to a decent amount of unnecessary confusion in the world. When I arrived at school, a group of my closest friends took to calling me Feltronix, which was promptly shortened to Feltron. Soon after, and probably because there were a few other Nicks around, I just became Feltron. When it came time to buy a URL for myself in 1999, that was the moniker I associated with, so feltron.com was born. For a while I used Feltron to distinguish personal projects from professional ones, but now it's all just Feltron, and it's all the same to me whether I'm called Nicholas Felton or Nicholas Feltron :)

      6 points
  • Randall MorrisRandall Morris, over 7 years ago

    Hey Nicholas,

    Long time admirer of your work. I've noticed in your annual reports, you credit the programming language, Processing.

    How long did it take you to have a comfortable understanding of the language?

    For those of us trying to automate more of our own DataVis, what resources would/could you recommend for learning Processing?

    Are there any other programming languages you've learned that have helped your work?


    1 point
  • Hawke BassignaniHawke Bassignani, over 7 years ago

    Hello! Huge fan. :)

    Is there a particular fire hose of data (like Twitter's) that you would love to have access too? Or one that you think is overlooked?

    1 point
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago

      Yes. Kindle data. I don't need the firehose… even though it would be incredibly fascinating. I just want access to my own data. I think it's outrageous that this record of the books I've read is locked away on Amazon's servers. That data exists because I purchased books and invested the time and effort to read them, yet I have no way of exploring the data to discover simple things like which books I read the most quickly, or where/when I read the most.

      6 points
      • Account deleted over 7 years ago

        This is why I loved using ReadMill - full access to the data of everything I had read.

        3 points
  • Rob GormleyRob Gormley, over 7 years ago

    What are some of the ways by which you track your data in a raw form? How do you aggregate it?

    What prompts you to determine - what - to capture?

    1 point
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

      This varies from year to year. I'm usually interested in capturing something novel, and frequently this means devising a new system for recording. Here are some of the approaches I've used over the years:

      2005–2007: iCal

      2008: iCal + Pedometer

      2009: letterpressed cards to prompting participants to complete an online survey

      2010: artifacts from my father's life (including calendars, passports, photos, etc)

      2011: iCal

      2012: prototype version of the iPhone app Reporter

      2013: primarily an iPhone app called Fulcrum which I used to complete a survey about my conversations.

      I used to aggregate everything using spreadsheets, but I've graduated to a local installation of mySQL that I can query from Processing to generate visualizations.

      1 point
  • Scott OgleScott Ogle, over 7 years ago

    How do you connect data to visualizations? Do you always start with the data and figure out what story it tells or do you ever start with an idea for a visualization and get the data to make it work?

    0 points
  • Jayanth PrathipatiJayanth Prathipati, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

    hey, I'm a huge fan of your work! I'm doing HCI research on EEG devices and Reporter for iPhone was a huge influence on the personal informatics work that we did! We actually ran a bunch of studies and we used reporter as a baseline source of research.

    If you ever had any time to Skype or chat over an email, I'd love to talk to you with the people that I do research with!

    0 points
  • Adam T.Adam T., over 7 years ago

    Do you have any experience with ArcMAP or GIS softwares and how do you bring design into data-driven cartographic or mapping foundations?

    0 points
  • Taulant SulkoTaulant Sulko, over 7 years ago

    Do you have any general tips on self starting a data visualization project?

    0 points
  • Jonathan ShariatJonathan Shariat, over 7 years ago

    One thing thats always eluded me is how do you go about deciding how some data should be visualized? Is it more science than art? Are there specific types for specific kinds of data?

    0 points
  • Alec SibiliaAlec Sibilia, over 7 years ago

    Would you ever consider doing a dynamic, ongoing web based report?

    ps. You wrote your longest email on my birthday last year.

    0 points
  • Nancy TsangNancy Tsang, over 7 years ago (edited over 7 years ago )

    Hi Nicholas! I remember when you came to UCLA DMA in 2011 to speak, and that has still been one of my favorite talks in my years there (thanks!).

    Do you find that the need to record different types of data while creating your reports have significant impact on your minute-to-minute decisions on what to do? (aka. Heisenberg's observer effect?)

    What is your next dream project?

    0 points
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago

      Hi Nancy… I had such a terrible cold when I gave that talk, so it means a lot that it left a good impression!

      I think a lot about observer bias when I devise the rules for collecting for the Annual Report. In general, I try to come up with an approach that interferes with my activities as little as possible… but I'm also frequently interested in approaches that are intrusive and novel. For instance, in 2009 I asked people around me to fill out a survey about my activities and our interactions, which of course led to different conversations. Last year, I wanted to have a record of all of my conversations… this was extremely hard work and as a resultthere were times when I purposefully avoided a phone call or a conversation so I wouldn't have to record it.

      I'm trying to build my dream project at the moment… hopefully I can say more about it in the new year!

      1 point
  • Shaun TollertonShaun Tollerton, over 7 years ago

    How has creating Annual Reports actively changed how you live? Eg. do you try and spend time with people you noticed you weren't spending enough time with? Do you try and visit places you've not been to before? Eat a wider range of food etc.?

    0 points
  • Sjors TimmerSjors Timmer, over 7 years ago

    Has creating year reports changed the way you think/experience time? Would you ever consider making a 10 year report?

    0 points
    • Nicholas Felton, over 7 years ago

      Absolutely. In a way, the report of a year becomes the definitive representation of a year. It's made me better at recalling when certain events happened, like my friend's concussion or the years I visited certain countries. But if something isn't represented in a report then it tends to fade away.

      I plan on making 10 Annual Reports, which means that the 2014 edition will be the last one. Eventually, I hope to reproduce them all in a book, and will then endeavor to add some 10-year visualizations. The hard part will be that I have not consistently tracked the same data over 10 years, or I have captured it in different ways… but I think it will be a fun challenge.

      3 points
      • Sjors TimmerSjors Timmer, over 7 years ago

        Thanks for your great answers, looking forward to book! :)

        1 point
      • Scott OgleScott Ogle, over 7 years ago

        I think that makes it all the more interesting--what you choose to capture and how you capture it becomes part of the story. It would be kind of boring if it was the same stuff over 10 years...

        0 points