Students seize the data with Plot-A-Thon

Students seize the data with Plot-A-Thon

Photo courtesy of Sohui Lee
Left to right: Sohui Lee, Chereen Swank, senior business major, Wiktoria Baran senior business major and Miriam Hernandez, senior business major

By Destiny Caster and Emily Chang

On Feb. 24 and 25, the Writing & Multiliteracy Center (WMC) hosted its third year of the Plot-A-Thon event. Plot-A-Thon is a “hack-a-thon”-style data visualization competition where teams take a given data set and clean, analyze and visualize it. The CI View reached out to Associate Professor and Faculty Director of the Writing & Multiliteracy Center, Dr. Sohui Lee to learn more about Plot-a-thon and how students can get involved.

The event took place overnight in the John Spoor Broome Library, beginning the morning of Friday, Feb. 24 and ending in the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 25. This year, teams worked together to visualize data about Netflix. Although all teams are using the same data set, they choose a specific category they would like to focus on within the data provided to them.

For example, groups could have focused on international movies within Netflix data. Participants also chose what program they would like to work with prior to the competition, including Excel, Tableau, Python and R.

Winners are chosen in categories including Best Overall, Best in Excel, Best in Cleaning and more. Students of the winning teams receive cash prizes. 2022 winners can be viewed on the Plot-A-Thon website, with corresponding reflection videos that talk about their process.

Plot-A-Thon also featured keynote and guest speakers. Lee explained that the keynote speakers introduced students to “what they do in data visualizations, how it’s relevant, but also just tips and tricks on how they learned how to do that and how they journey there, too.” Non-competing people were welcome to go and listen even though they were not participating in the competition.

Plot-A-Thon will return next spring, fully funded by a corporate sponsor, The Trade Desk, which is a digital marketing company. Students of any major are eligible to take part in Plot-A-Thon. The event intends to introduce inexperienced people to the process of data visualization and data literacy. “(No), you do not need to know anything. You can come in with absolutely nothing,” Lee stated.

However, it is advised that students do some work in preparation. Since Plot-A-Thon occurs in the spring, during the fall there are a series of informational sessions that can be accessed through a Canvas page open to CI students, as well as luncheon workshops. The Canvas modules guide students through the process of cleaning, analyzing, visualizing and communicating data.

Through Plot-A-Thon, students learn how to use data tools as well as tell a story through data. “People often think with data visualizations, it’s all about the analytics and it’s all about being able to use the tools, but that’s just one part,” said Lee. “You have to be able to choose the right visualization and communicate that effectively to your audience appropriately.”

Another central focus of Plot-A-Thon is facilitating teamwork. “(The) nature of plotting and data analysis is often very collaborative … You work in a team, you get to plot together, analyze the data and find out what is the most insightful, interesting and then present it in an infographic.” Individual and group creativity also shines during the competition, evident in the variety of final products created from the same data set.

Lee was particularly impressed by the students’ perseverance. “(There) was a huge storm that came though … the students who came in, they were all, like, kind of ready to go.” She also noted the students’ continual improvement: “I feel like every year they get better and better … I think that just tells you that we have a lot of untapped talent.”

The Plot-A-Thon team plans to expand the event in the future, including opening their Canvas page to more than just CI students. They also have ambitions to potentially open the competition to be multi-CSU. Campuses like CSU San Bernadino and CSU Northridge could join, fostering friendly competition and allowing more students to experience Plot-A-Thon.

Lee shared an anecdote from her time working at Stanford about an individual from NASA approaching her and expressing how he did not feel confident about having to present to Congress. He wished he had paid more attention to writing and communicating as a student, which is something Lee hears a lot. She said, “(That) would be my one advice is, like, you have free resources here. Use it to develop and build your skills, even if it’s not in your curriculum, even if it’s not in your class.”

For more information, to access the Plot-A-Thon Canvas or to register, check out the Plot-A-Thon website. You can also contact Lee at