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May 9, 2016

The Power of Visualizing Big Data

Posted by Sundaram Ganapathy (View Profile | View All Posts) at 10:41 AM

Take a look at deforestation in Sumatra over the course of the past 12 years with Explorable Visual Analytics (EVA)

An interesting argument is being played out in the United Kingdom, where the Conservative government is reviewing a program known as Innovate UK. The majority party, which came to power promising British voters more fiscal restraints on big government spending, is reviewing a lot more than just funding to corporate innovation programs. Taxpayers, however, can be persuasive, and the question now facing the British people is whether the government should continue helping to fund promising technology startups or instead give loans to the companies in question.

That debate has sparked the greater question as to whether innovation can be created by providing the right people with the right tools and the right space and then 'bottling it up,' so to speak. The Financial Times recently pointed out that the British aerospace giant Rolls-Royce spent some £650 million on research & development last year. It also received £35 million through the Innovate UK program. Would that extra £35 million have been missed by a technologically-savvy company like Rolls-Royce? I tend to think every last penny that goes towards innovation is important, so my answer would be yes in the grand scheme of things.

No matter what the political outcome (the British government giving either grants or giving loans to startups), it's important to have centers of innovation that don't necessarily fall within the four rigid walls of a company. Outside perspectives can work wonders. For instance, I have been following the accomplishments of the CREATE Lab at Carnegie-Mellon University in the United States. Another path to innovation is to watch doctoral and post-doctoral academics from afar and then to invest in their companies when the time is right - not unlike what a venture capital firm does. Sometimes it's difficult to wrap your head around the cutting-edge technology coming out of such startups, especially if you're an financier who wants to know how the market can utilize its products.

That's what makes Explorable Visual Analytics so interesting The talented scientists behind EVA describe it as an online platform for visualizing and analyzing 'high-dimensional' data. EVA is a platform that takes the highly touted topic of Big Data and allows users like you and me to navigate the data sets intuitively. According to Saman Amraii, one of the scientists at CREATE Lab who has worked on EVA since day one, you can build a simple geographical representation of a data set or a complex, abstract five-dimensional projection of that data.

Simply put, Big Data on its own is far too vast and complex for the human brain to process and understand. Actually, the number at which the brain stops processing data could, depending on the situation and environment, be around 1 million data points. Above that number, we start to see lots of 1s and 0s but very little actionable, usable information. University researchers Saman Amraii and Amir Yahyavi, along with their colleagues, began asking themselves how to present Big Data in combinations of dimensions that would be relevant, actionable, and (above all) easily grasped by those who set the parameters. Don't be intimated with talk of different dimensions. Explorable Visual Analytics often processes and combines five of them to achieve varying views of data sets.

High dimensionality is what is making Big Data palatable and more useful than ever. Someone parsing data sets wants to see correlations in that data. Suppose you start out with investigating income inequality in the greater Seattle area. But you want to see how gender affects that inequality. And what about the effects of living in different neighborhoods across Seattle? And how about going back, say, five years? What I've just described would be pretty difficult to present clearly and simply in a bar or pie chart. The data scientist wants the ability to work not only in 3D, but also in color and across time.

One of the most profound examples of EVA's work is the effect that deforestation is having in Sumatra. We all know the world's tropical rainforests are in danger of being eradicated. But the issue truly hits home when you watch an EVA demonstration of the tool that analyzes the effects of deforestation in Sumatra over the last 12 years. Better still, a scientist can bookmark any view they like inside the EVA platform on the website and then send a link that contains those bookmarks. Then EVA will open all those bookmarked views and they can go through them. Scientists can share the information via an email with hundreds of other academics and policy-makers around the world. EVA used Big Data from Global Forest Watch. They have also been working with data-rich groups like the United States Census, the World Resources Institute, and the department of transportation.

EVA's Amir Yahyavi makes a compelling point about how important it is to visualize Big Data. Humans who are the end consumers, he says, need answers to their questions fairly rapidly so that they can then formulate their next string of questions, and so on. If you have to wait an hour between asking each question as you rifle through Big Data sets to get your answer, the discovery process becomes laborious and the spark of innovation diminishes. Thanks to teams like the one behind EVA, innovation is not diminishing in the least; it's on the rise. Everywhere. From corporate R&D programs to tiny garages and everywhere in between, the most effective entrepreneurs are the ones who take technological breakthroughs and make them useful to the masses.

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