Irydium: Points of departure

Jun 28th, 2021

Recurse Irydium

So it’s my first day at the Recurse centre, which I blogged briefly about last week. I thought I’d start out by going into a bit more detail about what I’m trying to do with Irydium. This post might be a bit discursive and some of my thoughts are only half-formed: my intent here is towards trying to express some of these ideas at all rather than to come up with the perfect formulation for them, which is going to take time. It is based partly on a presentation I gave at Mozilla last Friday (just before going on my 6-week leave, which starts today).

First principles

The premise of Irydium is that despite obvious advances in terms of the ability of computers to crunch numbers and analyze data, our ability to share whatever we learn from these understandings is still far too difficult, especially for people new to the field. Even for domain experts (those with the job title “Data Engineer” or “Data Scientist” or similar) this is still more difficult than one would like.

I’ve made a few observations over the past couple years of trying to explain and document Mozilla’s data platform that I think form a good starting point for trying to close the gap:

Ok, so what is Irydium?

Irydium is, at heart, a way to translate markdown documents into an interactive, compelling visual presentation.

My view is that publishing markdown text on the web is very close to a solved problem, and that we should build on that success rather than invent something new. This is not necessarily a new point of view (e.g. Rmarkdown and JupyterBook have similar premises) but I think some aspects of Irydium’s approach are mildly novel (or at least within the space of “not generally accepted ideas”).

If you want to get a bit of a flavor for how it works, visit the demonstration site ( and play with some of the examples.

What makes Irydium different from <X>?

While there are a bunch of related projects in this space, there’s a few design principles about Irydium that make it a little different from most of what’s already out there1:

With the above caveats, there are still a number of projects that overlap with Irydium’s ideas and/or design goals. A few that seem worth mentioning here:

Success criteria

My intent with Irydium, at this point in its development, is to prove out some concepts and see where they lead. While I’d welcome it if Irydium became a successful, widely adopted environment for building interactive data visualizations, I’d also be totally happy with other outcomes, such as:

  1. Providing a source of ideas and/or code for other people.
  2. Working on (or with) Irydium being a good learning experience both for myself and others

  1. Please don’t conflate “unique” with “superior”: I’m well aware that all designs come with trade offs. In particular, Irydium’s approach will almost certainly make it difficult / impossible to directly interact with “big data” systems in an efficient way. 

  2. There is at least one effort (Dataflow) to allow editing Observable documents without using Observable itself, which is interesting.