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Teaching scientists how to visualize their data

Skye Moret's visualization.
Skye Moret's visualization.

After college Skye Moret spent a lot of time pulling trash out of the ocean. As a crew member on the Sea Semester program out of Woods Hole, she helped with daily morning and evening trawls for sea-faring garbage. The result was a lot of plastic and a lot of data, but no clear way to publicize what the program had found.

Now Moret is a first-year graduate student in Northeastern’s Information Design and Visualization program. The program was started in 2013 as a unique merger of analysis and design meant to help researchers tell their data stories to a broader audience.

“[Visual communication] allows people to catch the gist of something at a glance. . . that’s the power of it,” says Nathan Felde, professor and chair of the Art and Design department at Northeastern.

The Northeastern program is the only one of its kind, though Felde expects that won’t remain true for long. He also says it’s fitting that the first MFA in information design would be offered in Boston, which has been home to several of the most important developments in the field over the last two decades. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Muriel Cooper of MIT’s Media Workshop created the first platform for displaying visualizations of huge datasets. A decade later and also at MIT, Ben Fry and Casey Reas built a program called Processing, which allows users to create complex computer graphics without having to know how to program.

Those are the kinds of tools that students like Moret work with today. In January Moret completed a graphic, “Plastic Where it Shouldn’t Be,” that pulled together data — including data from all those Sea Semester net tows — to dramatize how abundant trash is in the world’s oceans. Moret says she views these kinds of graphics, which make research accessible to a wider audience, as an important part of what it means to do science. “Science is a service just like any other career that should be communicated with the rest of the world,” she says. “These amazing discoveries are being made all the time, but we don’t hear about them because they end up in esoteric science journals.”

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Felde views the field in the same way. He notes that the Northeastern program has so far attracted a number of people with a particular interest in the future of cities, which is a question that often turns on dense datasets that are hard to understand quickly. Converting those datasets into snappy visualizations allows specialists from different fields to start communicating with each other in a way that, he hopes, will spur better public policy. “You can produce a valuable tool in a discipline that has a spillover effect into other disciplines and the culture,” he says. “[Visualizations can] provide markers, red lines that indicate thresholds we should be cautious about.”

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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Sea Semester program.