How Visual Analytics Make Big Data Accessible

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Software developer Ivan Okhin created this heatmap to show places where SCSU students come from. The map is generated based on public records about SCSU students available through the university’s open student directory. See full interactive map here.

Big data has been the buzzword for the last few years. While the concept of big data-driven analytics is still in the theory stage, research institutions are trying to demonstrate how visual analytics of big data can make a real difference in businesses and the society today. By creating visual analytics, information technology corporations such as IBM and Google are making the pitch to make big data-driven analytics more accessible – to take it from the data scientist experts and put the information in the hands of the people empowered to make better business decisions (IT World Canada, 2013).

Imagine the frustrations: You’ve found some open data about PhD programs of your discipline across the country but simply couldn’t find a way to compare among these programs. I daresay not many applicants would create their own data spreadsheet to juxtapose the strengths and weaknesses between the programs they seek. (By the way, this is why we have created a beta-version PhD Finder for Rhetoric and Composition programs – to show what differences interactive analytics could make.)

Data accessibility is key when making critical decisions. Another instance would be public officials’ voting trends. We know that data about how governors vote in each electoral season are available out there. Yet, these information do not come in accessible formats – i.e. they are not aggregated for easy navigation and readability. Imagine the kind of impact it would have on the general public if they are presented a tractable, intuitive, and interactive format. General voters would have a better idea about how they should (or should not) support their state officials if they can observe and visually analyze these officials’ voting trends and agendas.

Information visualization is not only helpful but necessary. Fekete et al (2008) posited that graphical visualization serves cognitive benefits and perpetual support to understanding complex information. Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) wrote:

The eye. . .
the window of the soul,
is the principal means
by which the central sense
can most completely and
abundantly appreciate
the infinite works of nature.

Beyond inspirational, da Vinci’s words are resembled in our daily saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. “While people may agree or disagree with the sentiments behind that cliche, specific examples can help support the claim” (Fekete et al, 2008). The following from Ivan’s project doesn’t just prove that a picture indeed speaks for a thousand words, it also enhances processing of information by showing proximity of individual datum and density in an area (hot spots).


A thousand words.

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A picture.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

The human brain is unique in its ability to reason abstractly. “Visualization is so compelling because our brains are really pattern-matching machines,” said Noah Iliinsky, a visualization expert with the IBM Research Center for Advanced Visualization. “There’s a huge amount of data you can bring in, and the brain has a great capacity for pattern matching and pattern recognition.”

Besides private sectors and business corporations, hospitals, energy companies, and the police forces are also using visual analytics to improve workflow and ultimately provide better services.

Truly, we are at an intersection of abundance in open data and high stakes for data interpretation. Visualization of data is an effective way to unpack complex information and make them accessible to the general audience. By making data easier to process, we are opening up new possibilities in the ways we do business, save lives, and learn about our world.

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