Visualizing Information

by Cristián Opazo

A 3-D visualization of a particle collision event at the LHC

Living in the information age has fundamentally transformed the way we interact with the world around us. In particular, it has transformed the way we digest information from the many sources at our disposal. Understanding diverse, complex sets of data has become a familiar task for all of us to deal with even through the simple process of reading the paper every morning. In other words, information technologies are reshaping our literacy to necessarily include new digital literacies.

The term Scientific Visualization has been used for decades in relation to the use of computer technologies as a way of synthesizing the results of modeling and simulation in scientific and engineering practice. More recently, visualization is increasingly also concerned with data from other sources, including large and heterogeneous data collections found in business and finance, administration, the social sciences, humanities, and even the arts. A new research area called Information Visualization emerged in the early ’90s, to support analysis of heterogeneous data sets in diverse areas of knowledge. As a consequence, the term Data Visualization is gaining acceptance to include both the scientific and information visualization fields. Today, data visualization has become a very active area of research and teaching.

The origins of this field are in the early days of computer graphics in the ’50s, when the first digital images were generated by computers. With the rapid increase of processing power, larger and more complex numerical models were developed, resulting in the generation of huge numerical data sets. Also, large data sets were generated by data acquisition devices such as medical scanners, electronic microscopes and large-scale telescopes, and data was collected in large databases containing not only numerical and textual information, but also several varieties of new media. Advanced techniques in computer graphics were needed to process and visualize these new, massive data sets.

A 3-D sonogram image of a baby fetus

Edward Tufte‘s now classic books on information visualization, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) and Envisioning Information (1991), encourage the use of visual paradigms with the goal of understanding complex relationships by synthesizing both statistics and aesthetic dimensions. A little earlier, Jacques Bertin, the French cartographer and geographer, introduced a suite of ideas parallel to Tufte’s in his book Semiologie Graphique (1967). The basis of Bertin’s work is the acknowledgment that graphic tools present a set of signs and a rule-based language that allow one to transcribe existing complex relations among qualitative and quantitative data. For Bertin and Tufte, the power of visual perception and graphic presentation has a double function, serving both as a tool for discovery and a way to augment cognition.

In future posts, I will describe in more detail the current landscape of data visualization across the fields of natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and the arts. Stay tuned.


Your homework today: improve Wikipedia

by Cristián Opazo

What would happen if you would attempt to address two of the most controversial issues in higher education today, namely, the use of Wikipedia and the peer-review paradigm– both at once in your classroom? This is precisely what one brave member of the Vassar faculty, Chris Smart, Associate Professor of Chemistry, did with his students in a senior-level course, during the spring semester of 2010.

“Since we know that our students use Wikipedia for academic purposes on a regular basis, as a teacher, you can’t just deny it, prohibit it, or look away,” says Smart. “So I asked myself: what could I do to motivate my students to use Wikipedia in a more constructive way? And the answer is more than obvious: we need to make them active contributors, instead of passive consumers. The problem with Wikipedia in higher education is not Wikipedia itself: it is the use that students make of it. When students use it passively, treating everything they find as truth, especially on topics they have little or no knowledge about, then we all have a problem. But if you make them confront what they read with a critical eye, and take it upon themselves to improve the existing (and non-existing) content, then you have radically turned the situation in everybody’s favor.”

Smart, who was teaching the 300-level course “Chemical Reactions” in the spring of 2010, designed the following assignment: each student would pick one of the many existing Wikipedia articles on chemical reactions tagged as a stub (that is, a very short, poorly written article), and improve it with quality content such as text, chemical diagrams and bibliographic references. “I quickly realized that I needed the help of an experienced Wikipedia user to learn whether this was a feasible idea, so I approached Cristián Opazo from Academic Computing Services, and he was very excited about the idea from the very start. He conducted several hands-on sessions about editing Wikipedia in my classroom, and the students started getting busy right away.”

I could see that perhaps the single most important factor that would motivate my students into doing a good job in this assignment, would be the fact that the whole world was watching,” adds Smart. “The academic world tends to quickly dismiss Wikipedia on the basis of its openness and its lack of formal peer-review by experts, but the way I see it is that this openness is precisely what makes it a great resource: you have this huge community of contributors all over the world that care about particular topics, and many of them are committed enough to criticize existing content, and to go to great lengths to make a certain article accurate and cohesive. In fact, at least one of my students engaged in a very constructive exchange with another Wikipedia contributor somewhere out there, and this exchange was prompted by this student’s work as a Wikipedia editor for this class assignment. He still keeps an eye on the evolution of the article long after the class is over, because he feels proud of his work: now there is this article about a particular chemical reaction that is available for the whole world to read and reference.”

One of the most often-heard criticisms about Wikipedia is “how good can be something that has been created by an unregulated bunch of anonymous people?” What I tell them is: have you heard of Linux? The most robust, efficient and reliable computer operating system in the history of the world, used in the highest levels of scientific research and business enterprise, was created, and is progressively improved, by an unregulated bunch of individuals around the world. The core ideas that fuel the open-access paradigm are not profitability or market appeal; they are creativity and commitment. And that’s the spirit behind Wikipedia.

To learn more about the use of Wikipedia in teaching and research, listen to this interview with Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia at the Chronicle of Higher Education site. This excellent article by Patricia Cohen at the New York Times about re-thinking the peer-review paradigm in academia recently generated a lot of interest.


The Teaching and Technology Forum

by Steve Taylor

Though it’s not a recent event, I thought it would still be worthwhile to write about last spring’s Teaching and Technology Forum.

In its eighth year, the forum is a poster session in which faculty members display and explain teaching initiatives (or in some cases, research initiatives) that make interesting use of technology. A new feature this year was the inclusion of some student-initiated projects as well.

Keynote Speaker
A special feature of the forum is its keynote speaker. This year’s keynote was Prof. Paul Ruud, of the Economics Department. In his address, he proposed a new blog, in which Vassar  faculty members would regularly post brief descriptions of their class activities. With a high participation rate, this blog would let any instructor know what his or her students were doing in their other classes; then the instructor might adapt some lesson plans to complement what students were doing in some of those other classes. It might also encourage faculty members to communicate more with each other, based on a greater awareness of what each other was teaching. The result could be a strengthening of the cross-discipline integration that is the core of a liberal arts education.

The poster sessions, while quite diverse, covered topics that might each be considered to be one of two types: those that used technology to visualize information and those that use technology to increase social networking.

Visualization Technologies
Some poster sessions show ways in which technology could be used to give students greater access to images of what they’re learning about. Lucy Johnson, with Anne Sando (2010), showed how they are building a database of photos of the archaeological artifacts; Arden Kirkland and Holy Hummel showed how they are building a database of photos of the costume collection; Andrew Tallon showed his growing collection of digital 3D panoramas of architectural sites; and Sarah Kozloff showed how she is using streaming technology to provide students with anytime/anywhere access to film excerpts. Jane Parker showed a novel use of video for skills training: projecting video of a skilled squash player onto the front wall of a squash court, for players to mirror in real time.

Visualization is also used for getting a new perspective on scientific data. Alicia Sampson (2012) and Rebecca Eells (2012) worked with Kate Susman and Jenny Magnes to build visual models of worm behavior; Joe Tanski and Bona Ko (2010) used x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the elements of art objects.

Social Networking
While these projects used technology to bring  students closer to their learning materials, others used technology to bring students closer to other people. Kelsey Forrest (2011) and others in Saúl Mercado’s class created a social networking site to benefit the Vassar community, while Leslie Williams and Adalake Barnwell created  a site to facilitate communication between local high schools students and the Vassar student mentors. Students in the Bioinformatics program created their own support group for fellow students. Some people used technology to  collaborate on their work: students in Leonard Nevarez’ class used a wiki for collaborative writing, while Tracey Holland used a wiki  to co-write with her own collaborators; Natalie Friedman’s class did their writing assignments on a shared blog site. Zeynep Gokcen Kaya, an exchange student from Turkey, presented her research on social interaction in virtual worlds.

Interestingly, two exhibits showed uses of technology that enhanced both visualization and social interaction: students in Jeremy Davis’ class used Skype to interview authors whose articles they were studying, while students in Hiromi Dollase’s class used videoconferencing to speak with students in Japan.

More information, along with photos and reproductions of each presenter’s poster can be found at <>.Watch for the announcement of next spring’s event— you won’t want to miss it.