Foreword: For those that aren’t familiar with the Tableau Iron Viz competition, Iron Viz is the ultimate battle of Tableau skills. Three challengers are selected based on contests held through Tableau Public. These contests are centered on a specific topic or theme. There are two competitions each year; one in Europe (at the London Tableau Conference) and a bigger competition at the main Tableau conference in the US. In each competition the challengers face off head-to-head in a 20-minute viz battle in front of a live audience held at the respective Conference. The winner, as decided by the a panel of judges, is crowed Iron Viz Champion.

I must admit I almost didn’t submit a viz for the European Iron Viz competition this year.

I have been particularly busy recently and also struggled to find any inspiring data sets (or any suitable data sets at all for that matter).  I lost count of the number of fruitless Google searches I did for any data remotely related to ‘European Cities’, the theme of this years’ European Iron Viz feeder competition.

The turning point

On 26th March, 6 days before the competition deadline I joked with Lorna Eden on Twitter that I couldn’t find any data (poor Lorna started off with a data set on European countries rather than cities, before realising this didn’t fit the rules):

Tristan Tweet

However, it was Tristan’s response that was the turning point for me. As reigning (US) Iron Viz Champion, Tristan knows what he’s talking about! Tristan even followed this up with a blog post which I highly recommend reading if you are considering entering Iron Viz yourself. Tristan urged us both to stop focusing on finding that ‘perfect’ data set and instead find something basic and build it up from there. With this new perspective I approached the search for data differently. I thought tourism might be an interesting topic to visualise so I started browsing travel websites in search of inspiration. This was when I stumbled upon the Price of Travel site.

I have an idea!

The Price of Travel compile annual indexes listing the cheapest holiday destinations all over the world. They have individual indexes covering different regions, one being Europe. For Europe they have a ‘Backpackers Index’ which lists the 59 top European city destinations and calculates the approximate cost of an overnight stay in a hostel in each city. I was drawn to the index as there were so many different aspects that could be visualised using the data provided. For instance, one could explore the cheapest cities, the most expensive cities; the price of different items and how they compare between cities, etc, etc. However, I still had a problem. The data wasn’t available to download easily and I didn’t have hours to spend copying and pasting information from the website. Thankfully I mentioned my dilemma to Lorna and she kindly offered to help me to scrape the data from the site using Alteryx. 10 minutes later and the data was sitting in my inbox ready to go! Thank you Lorna!!

My head was full of ideas at this point, so much so I even wrote a list to ensure I didn’t forget anything! I started off by looking at the top two cheapest cities for food, accommodation and transportation versus the two most expensive. However, I quickly discovered that the cheapest city in one category was often the cheapest in all of them. With this in mind I decided to focus my attention on the top 10 cheapest cities only, namely:

  1. Kiev
  2. Krakow
  3. Belgrade
  4. Bucharest
  5. Sofia
  6. Budapest
  7. Sarajevo
  8. Zagreb
  9. Riga
  10. Istanbul

I researched each one, noting down some key facts and tourism statistics. I tend to do a lot of background reading around the subject matter of all of my vizzes. I find this really helps me to gain a broader understanding of the subject and helps focus the attention of my visualisations too. Now I was ready to begin working on my visualisation in Tableau!

Building the viz

I set some objectives for my viz:

  • I wanted to create a custom colour palette;
  • I wanted it to include some maps but not be too map-heavy;
  • I wanted the design to be simple & engaging;
  • I wanted to create a longform style infographic that would fit on a single page

The colours

Whilst I was researching the cities I was drawn to some images on Pinterest like this one:

Pinterest Inspiration

I love the fonts, the overall clean design and the blue/brown/earthy tones in this image. This inspired me to find an photo of my own and build a custom colour palette based upon the colours in my chosen image. Once I found an image I liked I built a custom colour palette using the CSS Drive website. You simply upload an image and the site does the rest. From here I built a palette of eight colours from which I created a custom colour palette in Tableau.

For my custom fonts I knew I wanted to mix a cursive font with something bolder. I found some fonts in Canva that I really liked and downloaded them. I then built my text headers in PowerPoint and added to the viz as images (since many more niche fonts are not supported on Tableau Public if they were added to the viz directly they would not display correctly on Tableau Public). If you decide to try this yourself remember to change the background colour of your slide in PowerPoint (or whatever tool you decide to use) to match the background colour of your viz!


I’ve been wanting to use Mapbox properly for some time now. When I built my Turkey Vulture migration viz for #MakeoverMonday earlier this year I used a pre-built map style in Mapbox as I couldn’t figure out how to create my own. I hadn’t come across any Mapbox tutorials in the Tableau community so I tweeted to see if anyone could recommend some. Thankfully Amar from Comcast responded and sent me a whole list of tutorials which he finds useful. On Amar’s list was a blog post written in 2015 by Tableau Superstar Anya A’Hearn (Datablick) which explains how to use Mapbox Studio. This tutorial was EXACTLY what I needed! Within 30 minutes I had used my custom colour palette and fonts to build a map style that fitted my theme perfectly.

Jonni Walker showed me a design trick recently which creates circular maps in Tableau. I have been wanting to apply this technique to a viz ever since so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do so. I love how the maps turned out!

Using icons for simplicity

I remember back at Tableau Conference on Tour in 2017, Ryan Sleeper gave a talk about his design processes where he showed a viz that used icons instead of text. The viz in question was sports related and showed (for example) a basketball player icon instead of writing the word ‘Basketball’. I really liked this approach but I find it can only be used where the icons are particularly intuitive. In my case I wanted to show icons for each of the items used to calculate the total cost of a stay in each city, namely the cost of accommodation, food, drinks, attractions and transportation. Thankfully intuitive icons can be applied to each of these so Ryan’s approach worked in this instance. To avoid any confusion I also added a breakdown of each item including the icon and description at the top of my viz. I’ll write a blog post soon which shows how to use icons on a chart axis instead of text.

Where I included facts about each city I included an appropriate icon for each of these. Instead of writing the country name I included a flag (I was sure to include the country name elsewhere as I’m conscious the flags won’t be recognisable to everyone). I also added a few other novelty icons throughout the viz.

Note: I have a subscription to Noun Project where I source all of my icons from.

The importance of feedback and refinement

This is my first time entering Iron Viz. Up until now I’ve enjoyed watching the excitement from afar; admiring the excellent standard of vizzes that this competition produces. While I haven’t entered before, last year I had the pleasure of providing feedback to Mark Bradbourne whilst he was working on his viz for the animal-themed feeder competition. This was an insightful and rewarding experience, particularly because I was providing feedback in a group with a few others from the Tableau community. The approach was simple; Mark would post an updated viz to the group and we would provide our feedback. Mark would then work on the feedback and then re-post the viz. It was interesting to see how we all spotted different things to change or came up with different ideas. It became apparent to me that it’s all too easy to miss mistakes in our own work. We almost become blind after looking at something for so long that we no longer process what we are seeing properly.

With this in mind I decided to make it a priority to seek feedback on my viz from the community. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again…..the Tableau community is awesome! Everyone is so supportive. Chances are if you reach out to somebody for help they will help you if they are able to or at least point you in the right direction of somebody that can. Iron Viz is perfect for this kind of collaboration as everybody wants everybody else to do their best.

The community didn’t let me down on this occasion and I was lucky to receive a number of offers for help. The feedback I received was incredibly helpful too. As I suspected I had completely missed some obvious mistakes. However, I also received some suggestions which I hadn’t considered before but worked so well! For instance, I hadn’t considered using Viz in Tooltips or highlight actions but when I implemented them they worked perfectly. I’m incredibly grateful to all those that helped me on this occasion (you know who you are).

The final product

Here is my completed viz:

(click on the image to interact with the viz on Tableau Public)

European Cities on a Budget FINAL FINAL

I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’s not what I initially had in mind; my design changed so much whilst putting this viz together. Also, you’ll notice that the top 10 cities reduced down to the top 5 in the final edit. I simply did not have the space to fit all 10 cities on a single page or the time to give them the attention they deserved.

Now it’s your turn

I’m looking forward to seeing all of the entries to Iron Viz Europe this year. I’ve seen some excellent submissions on Twitter already and I’m sure there were more that were submitted directly. I really hope these vizzes inspire more people, particularly women, to participate in the upcoming Iron Viz feeders for the main competition later this year. It’s an excellent experience and with such a supportive community there really is nothing to be afraid of. I have seen lots of people give excuses such a lack of time, no data set or inadequate skills as a reason for not participating. In my case I didn’t have time so I MADE time. A few late nights won’t kill you! If you have data set issues, please review Tristan’s blog post I mentioned before. As for Tableau skills, you don’t need to be a Tableau Zen Master to enter Iron Viz. This competition is open to people of all abilities from beginners right through to Jedi’s.

If you don’t take part you’ll never know what might have been.

Thanks for reading!

Update 04/04/18 – All of the Iron Viz Europe entries are now available to view on Tableau Public here. The creativity and skill of the competition entrants is truly inspiring! Scroll through the gallery in Tableau Public and vote for your favourites by clicking the star icon to ‘favourite’ the vizzes. The closing date for votes for the crowd favourite is close of business on Friday 6th April 2018. Best of luck to everyone that entered!