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The art of numbers: Who knew Big Data could look so cool?

Narasu Rebbapragada | Sept. 19, 2013
Bold graphics tell a human story that spreadsheets cannot.

In August 2013, Mitchell's group released its most recent Arctic Sea Ice update. It uses information from a satellite far above the Earth to show the daily shifting pattern of melting ice in the Arctic Ocean over a three-month period. This year's melt won't break any records, but if you want to feel more unsettled, look at the visualization of the aggregated data over a 32-year period.

In addition to creating public awareness, data visualizations are also an important tool for scientists themselves. NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover, for example, enables scientists to explore the surface of Mars from 140 million kilometers away. But scientists need to see the data in as realistic a form as possible to be able to understand it.

"Is it silicate rock? Is it volcanic rock? Was this rock ever underwater? We have to be as accurate as we can," says Eric De Jong, who leads the Rover's visualization team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

So the Rover's visualizations use images fortified with extra data about what's in the photo. Because colors and textures look different in Mars's atmosphere, the team uses color calibration and computer modeling to make adjustments.

Visualizations beyond the Web
Not all visualizations sit in front of you on a screen. Some let you walk right inside them.

The Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago created an immersive environment called CAVE, or the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (the "cave" part is a nod to Plato's analogy of the cave in The Republic). CAVE allows scientists and engineers to step inside a data visualization the size of a room, wearing the the same sort of 3D glasses people use to watch 3D TV. Through the visualization, users can explore an underground lake based on data collected by a roving robot, for example. Or they can examine highly detailed car design prototypes with everything displayed in actual size.

The original CAVE, released in 1992, used projectors to throw images onto the walls of a room. The new CAVE2 (unveiled in October 2012) shows images on LCD flat-panel screens that form the walls of the environment. The result is brighter images that take better advantage of the physical space.

"We think of CAVE2 as a special kind of lens for looking at big data," says Electronic Visualization Laboratory director Jason Leigh, who created CAVE2 along with UIC associate professor Andrew Johnson.

In a neuroscience application of CAVE2, scientists can explore a map of neural connections in the brain (called a connectome) based on data taken from an MRI scan. Resembling some sort of neurological superhighway, green, red, and blue streamlines depict white matter fiber tracts in the brain. The colors indicate the primary direction of the lines.


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