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Artists and data experts work closely to create visualizations

Artists and scientists both strive to see the world in new ways, and then tell others their insights. Data visualization relies on both disciplines as storytelling tools.

The National Energy Board (NEB) is using data visualization to turn massive spreadsheets of data on Canada’s energy sector into visually appealing images the mind can more easily understand.

To this end, the NEB established a three-year collaborative initiative with the Interactions lab at the University of Calgary, VizworX, a specialized software development company, as well as TheHesterView Inc., a leader in data innovation projects.

Together, the team creates visualization tools through a thorough multi-step process that helps them understand and structure the data. Here is an overview of how the process unfolds.

Step 1: Prepare data primer and data set

The development gets under way with identifying and preparing needed data and meeting with the NEB subject matter experts to build an initial understanding of the data.

Step 2: Understand the data; what questions it can answer

As the team gets familiar with the data, they gain a sense of what stories the data can tell, and identify what questions the visualizations can answer.

Step 3: Data and design workshopProject participants during the data and design workshop

Developing visualizations in an “iterative” process – which means concepts are developed, analyzed and refined repeatedly.

Early on, the group meets for an intensive data understanding workshop at the NEB, involving the technical, design and visualization teams.

At this stage, the key pieces of data to highlight are selected and preliminary ideas are sketched out and shared internally.

The NEB visualization team acts as an interpreter and coordinator for the various groups – internal data experts, design team and technical team – to ensure an end-product that delivers on all goals and requirements.

Sketches of the NEB’s incident visualization tool in its preliminary phase

Step 4: Develop, analyze and refine preliminary ideas

After significant idea generation, design development and fine-tuning, the visualization is ready to be brought to reality.

Step 5: Interactive and accessible web app created

VizworX then works on the software coding that will turn the ideas into reality. Its team builds the visualization for the web – creating the source code and bringing the interactive features to life.

Step 6: Fine tune visualization with input from designers and the NEB

The process of turning the visual design into a full-fledged web app involves constant communication between designers, programmers, and the NEB visualization team. This collaboration also results in some final refinements to the visualization design.

Step 7 & 8: Quality checks and upload final visualization to the NEB website

After final reviews and quality checks, the visualization is uploaded to the NEB’s website and optimized so it’s easy for search engines, such as Google and Bing, to find it.

Step 9: Upload data and source code to open.canada.ca

The final step is to post it to the federal government’s open data website: open.canada.ca. The source code is also posted for other organizations that may wish to learn from the development work.

The finished product is a powerful new tool that enables Canadians to take part in informed discussions about the management of the country’s energy.

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