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Organizing Fellow: Dominique Thiebaut (Computer Science)

Click here to visit the project Web site.

The amount of data collected and available today in our various fields of research has reached such a scale that we are lacking tools to allow us to fully explore the data. It is not uncommon for data sets to measure in millions or billions of items. What used to be story-driven research—ask the question first, and then use the data to answer it—seems like it is becoming data-driven research: gather the data, explore it along some of its multiple dimensions, and see what kind of story is being told. This shift should be taken with care, as one should bear in mind that there is no “raw” data; data is collected for a purpose, and that pre-existing purpose may influence its future analysis and visualization. This is not a new phenomenon. One only has to look at Mappae Mundi, a set of medieval maps from the 11th century, to see how the influence of the Christian views of the time significantly distorted the visualization of the world.

Furthermore, as the technology evolves and allows us to garner new types of data in larger quantities, we find we lack general-purpose tools to explore and render the data. Increasingly, new tools are conceived, putting us, the tool creators, in the position of design artists, and presenting us with the challenging task of mixing science, art and technology with the "goal of using beauty and elegance as a path to clarity and analysis" [1]. Visualization, in particular, is experiencing a boom, as demonstrated in the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit Design and the Elastic Mind. Many examples of stunning visual (computer-assisted) displays appear regularly in various specialized magazines such as Seed or Wired, but also in news publications such as the New York Times or Harper's. All of these create new aesthetic standards. This boom is accompanied by the innovation of new programming languages aimed at artists, designers, and scientists, whose goal is to simplify the process of rendering this explosion of huge data sets. Remarkably and unfortunately, there is a lack of reusability of visualization tools: all too often, visualization is performed for one particular set of data, requiring great designing and programming skills; the work is published, then the tool is set aside and the cycle is restarted for a new set of data. Lacking reusability and verification on different data sets, we run the risk of sacrificing clarity and analysis in the name of elegance and the aesthetics of design, and possibly the risk of presenting erroneous information. In many ways we are at a frontier where tools are invented as the data are gathered. These tools are used only a few times, for reasons linked to the specificity of the data and to the fact that advances in technology lead to quick obsolescence. It is as if one had to reinvent the wheel every time a new project is conceived. Some argue that elegance and utility need not be antithetical, nor is it necessary to consign new technological tools to virtual landfills.

The goals of this Kahn workshop are to explore the new challenges of data analysis and visualization; to discover, develop and refine categories of visual thinking and to begin to understand the processes involved in each. Together we will learn about new methodologies and visual tools used in fields other than our own; create a network of resources (including technologies and people), share common challenges, and discuss the ways that art, science and technologies are merged in our analyses, and the implications of this.

The guest speaker for this project will be Colin Ware, Director of the Data Visualization Lab at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. Dr. Ware specializes in advanced data visualization and has a special interest in applications of visualization to Ocean Mapping. He combines interests in both basic and applied research and he has advanced degrees in both computer science (MMath, Waterloo) and in the psychology of perception (PhD, Toronto).

Ideally, participants in this project would include perceptual psychologists and neuroscientists, individuals interested in design, people interested in visual and spatial metaphors in language, computer scientists, artists, dancers and choreographers. 

This project will unfold over two one-day meetings, that will be spread over two week-ends where Fellows will present their intellectual interests, concerns, and experience with how the aesthetics of data analysis is expressed and represented in their fields of research.

[1] Paola Antonelli, Design and the Elastic Mind, in Design and the Elastic 1Mind, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Peter Hall, Ted Sargent, and Paola Antonelli, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., NY, 2008

Examples of Data Visualization from Diverse Fields
Click here to view examples of data visualization from a variety of fields and disciplines.

Project Sessions:

  • Saturday, October 18, 9am-4 pm
  • Saturday, October 25, 9am-1 pm

Project Fellows

  • Dominique Thiébaut, Computer Science, Organizing Fellow
  • David Bickar, Chemistry
  • Thomas Cuifo, Visiting Artist, Arts & Technology
  • Rob Dorit, Biological Sciences
  • Judy Franklin, Computer Science
  • Virginia Hayssen, Biological Sciences
  • Christopher Loring, Director of Libraries
  • Catherine McCune, Director, Quantitative Learning Center
  • Eitan Mendelowitz, Computer Science
  • Chester Michalik, Art
  • Lee Spector, Computer Science & Cognitive Science (Hampshire)
  • Doreen Weinberger, Physics


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