As a data designer for the career networking site LinkedIn, Anita Lillie is a storyteller of sorts, finding elegant ways to translate what might otherwise be incomprehensible statistics. An early practitioner in the field of information visualization, Lillie seeks to make data useful for the LinkedIn community.
“If visualizations are really good, you don’t need text to help people understand data,” she says. Take the infographic she created when LinkedIn surpassed 100 million users in March 2011. A tower representing 100 million business cards runs up one side, passing the peak of Mount Everest about a third of the way up the image.
When Lillie graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s in mathematical and computational science, she couldn’t have imagined data design as a career. For five years, she worked as a statistician for a Stanford University genetics lab and then as an applications software developer for Highwire Press, but she didn’t feel intellectually satisfied. She found her calling, however, when she came to the Media Lab to pursue a master’s degree. As part of MIT’s Hyperinstruments group, she focused her research on her two passions: data maps and music. “They gave us immense resources and let us go free,” she says. For her thesis, Lillie created MusicBox, a browser that organizes a music library into a map by analyzing its audio content, including pitch, tempo, and timbre.
After graduating, she worked as a senior researcher for data visualization and design at Nokia Research Center in Palo Alto, California, where she made interactive Web-based visualization tools for analyzing large data sets. She joined LinkedIn in 2010 and now helps spur interest in her industry by coördinating data visualization meetups, often attended by hundreds of people.
Lillie grew up in Austin, Texas, and currently lives in Palo Alto, where she also enjoys rock climbing, biking, tending her numerous carnivorous plants and succulents, and constructing things; recently she’s made her own backpacks and climbing pants and gear.
She’s also a passionate supporter of K–12 math and science education. She teaches science workshops at a local elementary school, remotely tutors middle-school students, and has helped teenage boys involved with the Tinkering School (a summer camp that encourages kids to build things) learn engineering skills by creating structures out of eucalyptus and twine. Her goal is to inspire the same readiness to learn that was an important component of her academic achievement. In addition to giving kids opportunities to succeed, “failure is important to encourage,” she says, and those efforts need to start at a young age.