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Saturday, 8 February 2014

Visualizing Data

In one of my recent projects (back in January), I was working on converting text data of Wifi locations in Penang (Malaysia) to an online map of internet hot spots. Basically, I was visualizing boring wordy and lengthy data to graphically pleasing locator tool.

Refer to: Penang Free Wifi Project
Presentation from Geoplex

Thursday ago, through a friend of mine, I came to know an open event in Melbourne about Visualizing Data. It was hosted by GIS consulting & solutions firm, Geoplex and around 30-40 people (I think) attended for this exciting event. We had four speakers: Geoplex, City of Melbourne, The Age (newspaper) and Flink Labs. The first presentation was visualizing traffic accident data using CartoDB. Geoplex built an interactive web map whereby user can estimate the risk of accident on a specific route (they are travelling on). However, I couldn't understand the workflow from sourcing the information to the final product.

Melbourne Urban Forest Visual

 The second presenter came from City of Melbourne and he was talking about CityLab projects. Basically, CityLab is a physical and virtual space for the council and the community to engage to resolve urban problems. At the same time, there is push in City of Melbourne on the concept of open data (free datasets for public to download and use). While open data enhances transparency and accountability, there is a lot of challenges. For example, datasets relating to utilities comes from energy & telcos companies while dataset of tree & parking location come from the council. However, both datasets cover the same area (i.e. Melbourne). The push of open data would be obstructed as different policies govern about datasets in different institutions (e.g. telcos, council). Second challenge of open data is what and how much to share the datasets. Should we make all the datasets for public view or how much of utilities information can be downloaded free? Anyway, City of Melbourne has collaborative project with its concerned citizens on air quality (Citizen Science in action). For example, citizen scientists armed with air sensor networks feeds on air quality information to city of Melbourne. Yes, the city of Melbourne has its own network of air sensors but with citizen scientists, a lot of gaps in data are filled up. Whether it is related to CityLab or not, City of Melbourne developed online map showing all the trees in the council. Called as Melbourne Urban Forest Visual, users can click any of the trees and get basic information. For the council, it is great planning tool as they can identify which trees need to be removed (if they are dying soon). For users, interestingly, you can email to the tree and state your feelings towards each tree.

Map of Car Thefts incidents per council in greater Melbourne (The Age)
Third presentation was about data journalism and the speaker came from The Age (leading papers in Melbourne). Data journalism essentially is getting the story from datasets and nowadays, data literacy is critical for journalists to back up their stories with evidence. Data Visualization of particular topic (i.e. feelings of people of the day) opens more stories and exploring micro trends in local community. For example, The Age (with collaboration with Trend Maps) created a map of Twitter feelings in greater Melbourne. Interestingly,visualization presented concentration of positive feelings in shopping centres and negative feelings along train lines & stations. Similarly, in 2013, with collaboration with volunteers, The Age created a map of locations of high-risk cycling accidents in Melbourne.

Flink Labs project of visualizing trolley movements in shopping centres

Final presentation came from FlinkLabs. This company focuses heavily on data visualizations. Some of their interesting projects they did were visualizing movement of shopping trolleys in shopping centres (trolleys equipped with RFIDs) and dynamic cartograms of shifting world trademark applications from Japan to China. In the case of trolley movement, this visualization helps store managers to know which aisle is most frequented of and deduce some reasoning of the frequency (likewise for less frequented sections too). Visualization is growing rapidly as it creates 'techie' feel in every project done. However, the problem today a lot of visualization is data poor and lack of substance. This becomes more true with 3D printing as this visualization is not so much of data analytics tool, but for more artistic purposes. The speaker stated (following on what The Age journalist speaking on) data visualization is not the end product and it is tool for pattern analysis and stimulating ideas.

In short, Data visualization is converting long,wordy and boring Excel (and other data formats) into visual pleasing graphics to stimulate our thinking process. Expect more and more of data visualization in the years to come as tools of data visualization is being integrated more and more with our simple tools (i.e. Excel)