What’s the Meaning of This?: Using Data Visualization to Drive Change Audrée Lapierre, Creative Director at FFunction

Audrée is one of North America’s leading interactive media designers. She is the Creative Director & Co-Founder at FFunction, an award-winning data visualization studio based in Montreal. She has been featured in magazines in Mexico, China, France, The Netherlands, and Spain, and she was selected as an emerging talent by HOW Magazine in 2011. She also led FFunction’s effort to become B Corp Certified in 2015.

What initially inspired you to want to make a difference?

Even back at university, I knew I didn’t want to work in advertising. I didn’t want to sell things. Design has a unique opportunity to frame issues and move the dial, and I wanted to work somewhere where I could leverage that ability. I co-founded FFunction with my business partner Sébastien Pierre when I was fresh out of design school, and even though I was young I knew that I wanted to build a workplace with strong values at its core.

Sebastien saw my portfolio and decided he wanted to work with me. He studied in France, where he did his masters in software engineering and also studied design. His final project for his design degree was a data visualization, which at that stage was really in its infancy as a discipline. Even when we met a few years later it was still a very new thing; I had never heard of it before, but I realized quickly how much I enjoyed it.

From a social good perspective, initially it seemed like enough to simply work with nonprofits and progressive businesses, but over time we developed about a dozen different policies that reflect that desire more deeply.

We offer part-time and flexi-time contracts for parents and caregivers, a bike-to-work initiative, responsible procurement practices, free in-house French classes.

We certified as a B Corporation in 2015 and this year we were included on B Corp’s Best For The World list as being in the top 10% worldwide for Governance.

Tell me a bit about FFunction & how your work is making a positive impact?

My studio, FFunction, is a data visualization agency with a multi-disciplinary team of software engineers, designers, UX specialists, communications professionals and data journalists. I think coming from different backgrounds and cultures allows us to think out of the box and create innovative projects. Thinking back, FFunction was one of the very first studios worldwide to focus on data visualization exclusively, so we’ve had to discover—or, more often than not, create—the technologies that allow us to push the envelope and deliver fast.

The company is based in Montreal but we have clients all over the world, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with very smart, interesting people at organizations like Google, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, National Geographic, World Bank, HP, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as smaller brands, nonprofits, cities and NGOs. In a nutshell, we take our clients’ data and use it to make interactive visualizations and experiences, infographics, data-rich reports (like annual reports or CSR reports) and data-driven web applications. Here’s an example of an interactive dataviz that we made for ONE about how the internet can help end extreme poverty. Take a peek at the data and you’ll see that in Niger, for example, only 2% of the population has access to the internet. When you consider the individual benefits of internet access; say, a farmer in Tanzania being able to see a reliable weather forecast, or a pregnant Nigerian woman having access to healthcare information, you begin to add up these individual data points and see the full picture of the community-wide impact the internet can have on literacy, commerce and health in emerging economies. People talk a lot about data’s potential for storytelling, but I think it has even more potential for clarity, better decision-making and ultimately action.

What obstacles have you had to overcome to drive change?

At first, the biggest obstacle was that no one knew what data visualization was! So a big part of our job in the early days of the studio was about educating people about the impact that data can have when put to work. Data can help philanthropists know how to invest donations for greatest impact, humanitarian workers understand where to focus their programmes, policymakers understand issues in a more granular way. In the corporate world, it can help business leaders make decisions that aren’t based on someone’s gut feeling, but on fact.

But we have to be careful: concepts like “fact,” “data,” “truth” and “veracity” are hot-button topics in the current climate, and for good reason.

Data can actually tell a variety of “truths” depending on the context and how you display it.

For our part, we have to be mindful of that, ask the right questions, operate with clean data and treat the information with integrity. Fact checking and confirming the accuracy of our sources is extremely important to us.

Business obstacles are the typical ones. Building teams is really important to us yet hiring in Montreal is tough. We recently had to restructure our company and going back to a small agile team was a hard decision but it was necessary. The team is changing because we’ve been in business so long now people are moving on or we need to adapt to the market. Historically we’ve also had to refuse projects that did not align with our values (Big Tobacco for example).

What advice do you have for people that want to make a positive impact?

Try to define what you stand for early on; it’s harder to establish a culture once you have a larger team. From a business perspective, I would say that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. You really don’t have to be a big company to have a big impact.