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Unique collaboration built on shift to transparency

"Transparency” has become a buzzword for governments seeking to engage citizens more fully. But shining a light on information involves a lot more than just lifting the shades.

The National Energy Board (NEB) began its shift to transparency years ago by, for example, making its data on pipeline incidents open to the public. The big reveal had limited impact, however, because few of us are experts in sorting through massive Excel spreadsheets.

More was needed so that any Canadian citizen could – and would – digest the information, find the stories and engage in an informed discussion about the 73,000 kilometres of interprovincial and international pipelines the NEB regulates. How could the NEB make it easier for anyone to discover the stories hidden in the numbers?

That question led to a unique collaboration between the NEB, an information visualization research laboratory at the University of Calgary, and VizworX, a customized software developer. Together, they have developed a way to turn the NEB’s 2008 to 2017 data on pipeline incidents into visuals that are easy to create, understand and communicate.

Consultant Annette Hester was brought on board in 2015 and began a countrywide search for the best data visualization laboratory in Canada. After speaking with experts at leading institutions, like the Ontario College of Art and Design, in Toronto, and the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, she was pointed to Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale at the Interactions lab within the University of Calgary.

The U of C lab was the only one large enough to handle the full spectrum of what the NEB was looking to achieve. The data visualization team at the Interactions Lab approach visualization research from both the design and computer science perspective. This dual perspective, coupled with the collaboration with VizworX has led to web-based data visualizations of NEB pipeline incident data.

It was a project unlike anything the Interactions lab or NEB had done before, so negotiations took months. But the collaborators agreed upon a shared goal: using research into data visualization to make the NEB’s information more understandable and accessible to members of the public.

The NEB believes data visualization helps everyone, including experts and non-experts, to better understand the raw numbers by making tools available to analyze large and complex data sets, and look for trends and patterns. Those goals dovetail with U of C labs’ research focus, which is on finding new ways for people to connect with, and better understand, data.

To test the waters, a small team undertook a pilot project, which became Exploring Canada’s Energy Future. The three-month pilot project tested the idea that visualizations could make data more understandable for everyone. The pilot was not only enthusiastically received, but it also earned the Contribution to Innovation in the Regulatory Field award from the Community of Federal Regulators, a partnership of federal departments and agencies.

Bolstered by the pilot’s success, the NEB and U of C labs undertook a full-scale project: one that would create visualizations of further NEB data, including incidents at NEB-regulated pipelines and facilities, advance research into the design behind the visualizations, and give NEB staff the tools they need to carry on once the research is done.

The three-year Data Visualization Initiative (DVI), which runs until fall 2019, will provide additional visualizations of data for other aspects of the NEB’s work. This experiment goes beyond just making data open; it contributes to the NEB’s mandate to encourage energy conversations by providing Canadians with unbiased, reliable and accessible information.

Katherine Murphy, DVI project manager, says the research being done will advance the use of visualizations for any interested organization. Making the code open source, she says, is “built right into the contracts.”

Sharing the research findings is a huge part of the project. Murphy says the team spends a lot of time talking to the data community in other government organizations who are watching the DVI project closely.

Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale, project co-lead, who heads the Innovation in Visualization research group, says the attraction for academics is the ground-breaking nature of the work. “We are a research lab,” she says. “We’re a very small group of people working on trying to answer the next big question.”

“There isn’t a template for what we’re doing,” adds Dr. Wesley Willett, project co-lead, who heads the Data Experience research group. “We’re acclimatizing the NEB to start thinking about their data in new ways.”

In the next phase of research, the U of C labs will work with various citizen groups, such as Indigenous communities, to learn more about what engagement with the visualization tool might mean. The feedback citizens provide will inevitably lead to refinements in the tool.

Resource: Energy visualization at the Interactions Lab

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