#btconf Berlin, Germany 11 - 12 Sep 2023

Shirley Wu

Shirley Wu is an award-winning creative focused on data-driven art and visualisations. She has worked with clients such as Google, The Guardian, Scientific American, SFMOMA, NBC Universal, and International Rescue Committee to develop custom, highly interactive data visualisations. She combines her love of art, math, and code into colourful, compelling narratives that push the boundaries of the web.

In 2021, she co-authored Data Sketches with Nadieh Bremer, a hybrid textbook and coffee table book that detail the process behind 24 data visualisation projects.

She is currently finishing a Master's at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP, May 2023), with the goal of bringing her data stories into the physical world.

Her work can be found at shirleywu.studio.

Want to watch this video on YouTube directly? This way, please.

Take up Space

This is a story about identity, burnout, finding courage, rekindling a dream, and settling into the discomfort of not knowing what comes next. Oh, and lots of dataviz.


Hi, everyone.

Thank you so, so much for being here.

And thank you to Marc, wherever he just went, for having me back at literally my favorite conference in the world.

And also for making space for so many personal talks, like Josh's, like mine, like Rob's.

But yeah, this is a really, really personal and vulnerable talk that I only feel comfortable giving at three conferences in the world.

And after today, I'll have finished giving these three talks at these three conferences.

And I'm going to retire this talk forever.

So having said that, I want to start with a disclaimer, a little expectation setting.

This is a beefy 45-minute talk with absolutely zero explicit takeaways and no technical lessons.

But it is instead my love letter to the data visualization and web communities that have given me so, so much.

So I hope you'll receive it with kindness.

And more than anything, I really, really hope that you like it.

When I was a child, I was loud and stubborn and always, always wanted things my way.

Except I was the very opposite of a good Chinese girl.

Humble and quiet and demure with a senior who always knows her place.

And as a Chinese kid growing up in the Japanese countryside in the 90s, honestly, kind of really brutal, if you know, you know.

All I wanted was to fit in with my classmates and maybe make my parents proud.

So I tried really, really hard to be quiet and humble and know my place.

That is until we moved to America when I was 10 years old.

And suddenly it was okay for me to be loud and opinionated.

And I felt so free to be exactly who I was.

This is until I got to high school and university.

And they started being told that I was intimidating.

I was intimidating in how I asked questions in speech and debate.

I was intimidating in how I delivered opinions in club meetings, even though in all of those instances, I was just being myself.

And that was when I learned that in America, women are allowed to be loud and opinionated only if she is fictional or if her opinions fit nicely within the patriarchal social norms that we have there.

But at 16 and 19 and even 22, I didn't have the courage to defy those social norms.

So just like how I felt the pressures to be a good Chinese girl growing up in Asia, I started to feel the pressures of being a socially acceptable American woman.

And without even realizing it, I had made myself small.

And by the time I started as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, I would second guess myself every time I wanted to speak up in a meeting.

And afterwards, I would wonder to myself if I had said too much, if my explanations had been too convoluted or meandering, if I had spoken too aggressively.

I had become afraid to take up space.

And I would make myself as nonthreatening as possible.

And I started to refer to my work as silly and make light of my accomplishments by saying that anyone who had put in the obscene number of hours that I have could do the exact same thing.

I had made a small, socially acceptable box for myself, put myself squarely in it, and convinced myself that that was the place that I belonged.


My name is Shirley.

I'm going to pause here really quick before we get too deep into the story so I can introduce myself.

I'm a software engineer, data visualization designer, storyteller.

And I work with my clients on the full data analysis, design, and coding process so that we can turn their data into awesome, beautiful, compelling visual narratives, interactive data visualizations that push the boundaries of the web.

I also coauthor data sketches with my dear friend, Nadia Bremer, who I think was here last year.

And pre-pandemic, I used to give talks about the technical lessons that I learned, the challenges that I overcame in my projects.

But today, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself.

Where I've come from, how I've grown, and where I'm hoping to go from here.

So let's get back into it.

In 2016, I was four years into a full-time software engineering career, and I loved the data visualization product that I was working on, but I wasn't the most excited about the industry I was in, which was enterprise security.

So I decided to quit my full-time job and try my hand at freelancing, specifically in data visualization.

So I could see the kinds of projects and data sets and challenges that were out there.

It was a simultaneously really exciting, but really, really stressful decision.

But I was determined to make it work.

That same summer, I became obsessed, like, obsessed with Hamilton the musical, and we were listening to the cast recording on repeat so often, like, daily, that I started to analyze the lyrics for recurring themes and phrases, and then ended up making this piece called an interactive visualization of every line in Hamilton, where each dot represents a series of lyrics sung by a character.

And as you scroll down the page, the dots burst apart and come back together until you get to the very end, where I present the visual tools so that you can do your own analysis.

And the following year, I had the opportunity to work on this piece with Nadi and the Guardian US team called Bust Out, How America Moves Its Homeless.

It's a story about the American cities that buy bus and plane tickets for their homeless people to relocate them elsewhere.

These two projects had so much more reach and impact than I could have ever expected, and they taught me so much about myself and made me see myself in a brand new light.

That the silly little data visualization things I do could inspire people and incite conversations.

And that gave me the validation that I needed to keep freelancing and doing what I loved.

And over time, I started to realize that what I loved was the freedom that came with freelancing, and that I got to choose the projects that I wanted to work on that really aligned with my interests.

And that in turn helped me learn more about myself.

So in 2018, I created my very first 3D data visualization.

I had been wanting to make physical installations for a few years by then, because I had become obsessed with this idea of being fully immersed in a work, of being able to hold a person's full attention as they walked through a piece and experienced it with their whole bodies instead of just their thumbs.

Except for the longest time, I couldn't come up with anything other than projecting my work onto a wall, which to me felt like I wasn't taking advantage of that third dimension.

Until I realized, of course, that's all I could think of.

I work on my laptop in 2D all day long.

So if I wanted to try designing physical installations that really take advantage of that third dimension, then perhaps I could start by working on my laptop in 3D. And so I taught myself 3JS and WebGL and created Legends, a 3D data visualization of the 51 women Nobel laureates between 1901 to 2018, sized by their influence and colored by the category of their award, where you can, quote, unquote, walk through and read about each of their accomplishments or fly up and see them arranged by the decade of their award.

And we can see that, especially in that first half of the century, there are so few women Nobel laureates.

And it's only in the last two decades that their numbers have become more than double digits.

And each of these stars that you see floating all around them, each of these stars represent the more than 800 men that have won the award in the same amount of time.

This project also taught me so much about myself.

For one, I was really taken aback and honestly really incensed by that huge discrepancy in the number of women and male Nobel laureates.

And that made me realize that I had barely ever seen women's names in the history and science textbooks that I had studied out of in high school.

And that made me realize how deeply that lack of representation had impacted me, how I had subconsciously imprinted into my brain that women could not be legacy worthy.

And for the first time in my life, I started to become aware of how small I had made myself, of how I had kept myself from dreaming anything bigger than this box that I had put myself in.

And all at once, I remembered my very first dream to be an artist.

Except I had given up on that dream almost as soon as it had taken root because even at four years old, I could feel the near financial impossibility of it for my immigrant family.

But at 29, I was more financially secure with a few more skill sets and much more confidence.

And I became determined to be an artist.

Except coming from tech, I had, like, no idea the first thing about how to be an artist.

So I applied to a series of artist residencies, all of which I got rejected from, because let's be real, I had no idea what I was doing.

Until I was invited to be in residence at New York University's ITP, a master's program in art and technology, where I got to audit introduction to physical computing and learn how to control Arduino and sensors and LEDs and motors, and also intro to fabrication, where I got to learn how to actually think in 3D. And made this truly silly, actually very silly drawing robot with two calligraphy pens and two servo motors.

This is hands down one of the favorite things I've ever made in my life, because look at how it, like, falls over, but, like, gets back up, and then that resilience, that's my life goal.

That's what I want to be when I grow up.

I also recreated five of my legends' crystals with laser cut acrylic and LEDs.

But what was the most exciting about being at ITP was all the inspiring people that I got to meet.

And I ended up collaborating with two of the students, Tina and Christina, on a follow up to my legends' crystals.

One amongst many is a physical data installation of 16 women in computing, each represented as a glowing orb hanging from the ceiling, arranged in a space by the decade of their achievement.

And even though all of these women are so cool and their contributions to computing is so badass, we had never heard of most of them before this project.

So we decided to start each of the orbs dimly lit, and as people walked up and read about each of the women described inside of it, the orb would glow a little bit brighter and brighter and brighter until the whole field was brightly lit.

This project was installed at ITP's 2019 Winter Show, where hundreds of people came through with this website as the digital counterpart so that anyone from around the world could read about these women.

And please read about them, they're so cool.

I didn't actually get to be at the show, but Christina and Tina made sure to send me lots of photos and tell me all the stories about people's reactions to this piece.

My favorite being that of an older woman from the university's computer science department who said that seeing this installation made her hopeful that maybe one day people would honor her work in this way.

This project was so far outside of my comfort zone technically, but I felt so supported by the ITP community in making it into a reality, and had so much fun working with Tina and Christina that I felt emboldened and victorious, like as if I was bursting out of that box by literally physically taking up space.

In that same week, on my 30th birthday, I finally dared to dream a new dream.

Not an achievable goal like all the ones that I had made before, but a dream that felt so far out of reach.

I want to make art that hundreds of thousands of people will come see, and I want to make them with the funnest, most talented team of my own.

Except, if I'm going to be honest with you and me, I could barely whisper that dream out loud even to myself, because it just sounded so ridiculous.

And every time I felt those doubts creeping in, I would remind myself of those photos and stories, and I would hang on to this dream of mine even harder, and I would tell myself over and over that even if everyone else thought that this dream of mine was ridiculous and out of reach, that I would never be the one getting in my own way ever again.

And so, I started 2020 so bright-eyed and full of hope for all the new physical work that I was going to make.

And well, we all know what happened to that.

I'm forever grateful that all of our friends and family remain safe, and that we maintain the roof over our heads, but at the same time, I lost all of the clients that I was talking to because of budget freezes.

Clients that never came back.

And I went seven months without income.

At first, I had no idea what to do with all of that unplanned free time, so I threw myself head first into this project, People of the Pandemic, a hyper-local cooperative simulation game which became my way of wrapping my mind around what was going on outside with the pandemic, which in retrospect was probably my very, very unhealthy coping mechanism for those first two months where I just worked myself around the clock in denial.

And by the time we finished this project, two months later, I was so burnt out that I could barely look at my computer, and I spent the next month playing Animal Crossing and making, I think, really cute resin earrings, which again, there's no life regrets, I think it was a great decision, but I did end up repeating this process of working myself to the extreme and burning out two more times in 2020.

The very last time, while working on the final design layout for our data sketches book, and by the time that Nadi and I had handed in our final design files in December 2020, I had stared at my own work and my own words for a month straight and was in a burnout so deep that I was...

I could not bring myself to look at my past work for months after.

And what was perhaps the most concerning was that I felt so strongly that I never wanted to work on another data visualization project ever again, which considering was how I made a living at the time, was really kind of very alarming.

So I decided to take some time in the next few months to talk to friends and really do some introspecting and I realized that two very important things about myself.

One is that I still really love telling stories with data.

I was just really exhausted from making them for the web with all of the different browsers and screen sizes and edge cases, and two, that I still love learning new things.

That's why I fell in love with coding and data visualization in the first place, but finishing that book helped me realize that I had reached the peak of what I wanted to learn making data visualizations, at least for the web, and I was deeply, deeply craving a change.

So I decided to listen to those gut feelings and in the fall of 2021, I started as a graduate student at NYU ITP.

And when I started that year, I let myself enter with zero expectations or plans and just let myself take all of the physical computing and digital fabrication classes that I wanted and I ended the year embracing the state of uncertainty that I was in.

That I was in a place of great transition from one city to another, from one phase of my career to the next, and that, in fact, my whole life has been a series of transitions that have never really fully settled, caught between countries and cultures and places of belonging, and that is a lot to unpack.

But fortunately, I've spent the past decade honing my skills, making data visualizations to understand the outside world, and now I had the time and space to make work to look inward and understand myself.

And I got that opportunity one beautiful September evening where I got to put on a one-night pop-up art show, my very first solo show.

This is called Wonder and Hope, and each dot represents a photo that I've taken between 2018 to 2022, and each flower represents a flower photo.

There's a lot of those.

And each double circle represents a food photo.

There's even more of those.

And they're double circles because they look like plates.

And the small dots are all the other photos.

And they're positioned by where I took the photo, so the further from the center, the further away from home I was.

And if the dot is within that solid inner circle, it means that I was at home when I took that photo.

I had so much fun thinking about how I would translate the web elements that I've worked so often with into the physical, and I decided to create these layers, like the layers of the DOM.

Thank you, thank you.

So I ended up printing the dots and flowers and color on paper, and that I think of as my HTML5 canvas layer.

And then I laser etched the annotations on transparent acrylic, and I think of that as my SVG layer.

And I'm especially proud of, like, because the acrylic has a certain thickness, it casts this IRL drop shadow.

I don't know if you can see it.

Like, right here.

Thank you.


It's a little attention to detail.

And then I laser etched the stories and the instructions on how to read the visualization onto more layers of acrylic, and I think of those as the divs that you scroll past on the web page.

So as you walk through this first half of the show, you're literally physically scrolling through my story about all the wonder that I used to feel being outside.

And this first half also doubles as the onboarding to the main visualization, which as you turn the corner, you encounter March 2020.

The very first month of the pandemic in America.

And you see that the dots have all shrunken within that solid circle of home.

And underneath, you see the main visualization projected and animating in a bowl of water.

Where each drop of water that lands from above represents one case of anti-Asian hate crimes reported to the New York Police Department in that same time.

And the way that the water distorts the image is the best metaphor I could give for how distorted reality felt at that time.

And as you turn again, you come across this triptych of the first three months of the pandemic, where we only ever left home to go do groceries.

And in this latter half of the room, I tell you the story of the effects that reading all of those anti-Asian hate crimes had on me.

Of how panicked I would feel when I walked down the street by myself, of how I would keep my eyes firmly on the ground because I become afraid that if I just raised my eyes and accidentally locked eyes with someone, that that would be the trigger for a hate crime.

And how in March 2022, I realized that I had lost all the wonder that I used to feel being outside and was filled instead with an all-consuming fear and anxiety.

And after that, I forced myself to look up and around whenever possible.

Until one day in April, when I look up and I see the first flowers blooming, and in that moment I feel the joy overtake the fear.

And for the first time in a long time, I feel hope.

And as you finish reading the story, you look up and you see the flowers that have been above your heads this entire time gently lighting up as you walked beneath them.

This show, this show was a big one.

It was the very first time that I had used data to work through something so personal.

And in seeing those emotions and anxieties of mine take up a whole room of space was extremely cathartic and healing.

It was also the very first time that I had asked for help putting together something so utterly personal.

And I am so grateful to the friends and my husband that answered my panic calls for help and spent 10-hour days with me fabricating and installing.

I also got to see all the people that showed up in person.

I think maybe a lot of people here, a lot of us might be able to relate to this, that when we make something digital and put it out into the world, we never really get to know all the people that we've reached.

I mean, we might in retrospect know by some page numbers or maybe some people are truly very kind and reach out to us afterwards and tell us what they thought.

But with this show, I got to see every single person that showed up and I got to see their reactions to my stories in real time.

And I got to see as they read my story, as they smiled with me, and as they teared up with me, and as they gave me hugs after.

And that happened so many times over the course of the night.

Those reactions, those moments of connection and community were so magical and beautiful and healing that going into my thesis, I decided I wanted to take the opportunity to really work through some really deep things, like deep emotional things, so that I could have hopefully a fresh new start after graduation.

And I also knew that I wanted those personal stories to take on physical form, where they felt really, really real and intimate and powerful.

And in the process of introspecting and really digging deep for my thesis, I found rage, deeply rooted, quiet and simmering rage.

And I found two sides to my rage.

The first, from my childhood and the quiet trauma that I inherited from my parents, who by the time I was 10 years old, had made four life-changing moves from China to the Philippines, Philippines back to China, China to Japan, and Japan to America, taking me with them on all but the first.

And the second, from my adulthood and my time as a woman in tech, I wrote this in my thesis paper.

The Silicon Valley sexism I encountered was the most spectacular forms of gaslighting and undermining.

By the end of my four years working full time, I had a disproportionately low opinion of my work.

I had once read that being a woman or a person of color in tech was like a death by a thousand paper cuts, countless microaggressions, each too negligible to report, but excruciating as they added up.

It resonated so perfectly that it hurt.

It took me years to realize how small I had made myself.

And it took me even more years to regain the confidence to acknowledge that I am spectacularly good at what I do.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

And for that, I have the data visualization and broader web communities to thank.

Free from the politics of a small but successful startup, they celebrated every project I've ever put out.

They told me over and over that I am incredible at what I do.

Six years after I left full time, I finally wholeheartedly believed them.

Thank you for believing in me when I didn't believe in myself.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you so much.

A week after I wrote those very words, this project of mine was awarded most beautiful out of 1,300 entries at the information is beautiful awards.

The highest honor given at this major award in our data visualization industry.

In that moment, not this moment, this moment I was like freaking the fuck out.

I didn't know what to say.

Not this moment.

But in the train ride after, I felt a deep sense of calm.

And I no longer felt that desperate need to constantly prove myself and my technical capabilities, a remnant from my time in tech.

And I felt instead at peace with myself and the work that I make.

And I came home and performed this piece, a story with almost no words, where the colors that I paint are turned into sounds.

And each drop of Chinese calligraphy ink represents an anti-Asian hate crime reported to New York Police Department.

And by March 2021, the amount of black ink becomes overwhelming.

And I'm forced to reconcile with it.

It's like that.

And this piece titled Though a Patriarchy would Privilege the Changelessness of the Sun over the Inconstancy of the Moon and You where I drip red ink, according to my 2020 menstrual data.

And it is inspired by the shame that I used to feel in my teenage years when my periods never came on the same days of the month and I thought that there was something wrong with my body because of that irregularity until I started using a period tracking app and learned that my body was very regular and what was actually very irregular is the solar calendar with its 31 days and 30 days and then 28 and sometimes even 29 days in a month.

And I realized the problem was not me.

And then I continued working on my thesis and ended up proposing two physical installations for the two sides of my rage.

And I decided to concentrate on just that first one about my childhood.

And as a starting point, I was deeply inspired by Stephanie Fu and her life altering memoir, What My Bones Know, in which she writes, I realized that my community in San Jose, America, was built in large part from the wreckage of America's brutal proxy wars against communism.

America massacred civilians and nook and knee and malign, it poisoned fields of crops and buried mines and left behind machine guns in the wrong hands and let houses turn to rubble.

San Jose is America's consolation prize for those that lost Saigon and Seoul.

I also spoke to dozens of Asian children of immigrants, Asians of my generation.

Everyone always wanted me to know that their parents were good people.

They came here with nothing.

They overcame so much.

They're just, you know, stoic, anxious, quiet.

And I became fascinated with that dichotomy of being an immigrant arriving in a new country filled with so much hope and expectation, and to find instead, a reality so vastly different.

So this is my thesis titled, Untitled, We Still Land Home, where Chinese calligraphy ink drips from above each drop representing a number of Chinese immigrants into America.

And I think of the fabric as the American land and the fans underneath as American sentiments against Chinese immigration, literally making the fabric into difficult terrain for the ink to land on.

And over the course of three hours, the ink makes its slow way from the back of the fabric all the way to the front, dispensing ink according to immigration data from 1850 to present.

And in the process of working on this project, I started to realize that I was asking it questions that I could not bring myself to ask my parents.

What was it like to leave home and have to start over and over so far from your full support networks?

Did you ever have to feel discrimination to survive and fight to survive?

Did you ever feel a powerlessness, a voicelessness in each new country with each new language?

Did you ever expect to pass that down to me?

And the piece answers me with every drop of ink that lands not where intended, but instead, messily scattering it in every direction freely.

And I think of all the lives that each drop represents, all the lives lived, struggled, settled, a thousand different imaginings for a million different lives.

And I am reminded that even if we don't land where we expected, we still land and we make homes for ourselves.

And there is so much beauty in that resilience.

I think of this as my first working prototype for this idea.

And there's so much more that I still want to improve on for the next iteration.

But for now, I am just so grateful for everything that it has taught me about myself.

That I've come to really enjoy working with motors because they literally let me move the world around me.

And I've come to love working with water and ink and air and wind, because they feel like the soothing balms to my rage.

And that if I could just succeed in keeping my visual form simple and elegant, that that would be the biggest defiance I could have against the incessant pressures I have felt as a woman and type to constantly prove myself and my worth.

And I love, love with an almost vengeance that I am using every last drop of skill that I have gained through my time in tech to make these pieces and regain my power.

I graduated almost four months ago and I still have no idea what my future looks like, or how to get to the A to the B to the C of that big, big dream of mine.

But for now, I've been doing a lot of reflecting and introspecting about how I want to go forward.

And I've come to realize that I'm kind of really excited about coding again, like those two years away from the web has made me really, really miss it.

So I'm trying to figure out a balance of client work with the digital visualizations and my own self funded artwork.

And I'm hoping that one day, maybe hopefully soon that those two can converge and I can just concentrate on telling stories with whatever mediums make sense for them.

And as for that box, some days I am still filled with so much rage.

Some days I'm like, fuck the box, fuck the social norms, and I'm going to be everything just the way I am.

And if that's intimidating, then deal with it.

And some days, I'm like, just want to crawl back into that box.

But more and more, I want to open up that box so that I can define myself exactly the way that I deserve.

So hello again, my name is Shirley Wu.

I'm a Chinese American woman, proud daughter of immigrants, software engineer and data visualization designer, storyteller, solopreneur, creative director, artist.

And I'm here to take up space.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.