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Visual concepts influenced by master’s student’s sketches

Bon Adriel Aseniero

Five years ago, Bon Adriel Aseniero was sorting through a number of research papers for his master’s thesis in Computer Science at the University of Calgary, assessing how people were working with data, when he struck upon a novel idea.

“I had no idea what was cool or interesting in the papers,” he said. So, he devised a unique way to make sense of the data. He sorted the information visually, in interconnected columns to help him understand what he was looking at.

When the paper was published in 2014, he moved on from the clever tool he had created to sort the data.

Until 2017.

That’s when Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale, his thesis adviser, and director of the Innovation in Vizualization (InnoVis) lab at the U of C, remembered the novel way Bon chose to visually present the data. Dr. Carpendale was reminded of his idea while she was reviewing concepts prepared by Doris Kosminsky, Professor of Visual Communication at the School of Fine Arts at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“I wasn’t aware I was building something totally new,” says Bon. “I was just trying to sort through the papers.” But, to Dr. Carpendale, Bon was building on “parallel coordinates,” visualizations pioneered decades ago by Alfred Inselberg, an American-Israeli computer scientist now based at Tel Aviv University.

Image depicting Bon's original parallel coordinates visualization.

“Doris showed me stacked bar graphs . . . and I thought we could take these one step further by including the ideas in Bon’s version of parallel coordinates,” says Dr. Carpendale. She approached him about joining a project to present the National Energy Board’s (NEB) data in an easy-to-digest visual form.

The NEB contracted with the U of C’s Interactions lab, seeking to find new ways to understand the mounds of data it has on pipeline incidents and related facilities it regulates in Canada. The incidents visualization tool is designed to make it easier for anyone, including non-experts, to spot trends by seeing the data presented in a visual form.

Now working on his PhD, Bon’s research is on how to use visualization for public engagement – exactly the purpose of the NEB project. The visualization tool, he says, allows people to generate their own stories. “I’m really into the idea of stories” from data, he says.

Bon did not begin his academic career thinking of data visualization. Born in the Philippines, he came to Calgary with his family in 2006. In high school, he was interested in computer science. His passion for computer games led him to learn computer coding. During his undergrad years, he met someone who was involved in the human interaction side of programming.

“I attended one lecture on data visualization, and that’s where it all clicked for me.”

A drawing hobbyist, he felt a personal connection to Dr. Carpendale, who also came from a visual arts background. “We understand the same things” about seeing data in a new way, he says.

Bon stresses the visualizations he created were just the start. They took on new life as team members added their own ideas to his concepts. He says the team helped him step back and critique – and therefore improve – his own work. “Sometimes you fall in love with your work too much,” he says.

Visualizations works best, he says, when it is they are aesthetically pleasing, and capture people’s curiosity. To him, anyone is capable of understanding sophisticated visualizations, even those that are much more complicated than the pie charts and bar graphs we are all familiar with.

To Bon, visualizations are a tremendous way to build public trust in the data from agencies, such as the NEB.

“We want to be able to build data provenance (validation),” he says. “We want to be able to show that this information is not biased.”

Now 28, Bon hopes to pursue his learning through teaching new media design once his PhD thesis is complete. Microsoft and Google are on his list of potential future employers.

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