Seeing is Believing: Georgia Tech Becoming a Leader in Visualization, Visual Analytics

For a long time, School of Interactive Computing (IC) Professor John Stasko was information visualization and visual analytics at Georgia Tech. After joining the faculty in 1989, he spent the better part of two decades as a one-man shop, teaching and leading research with just a handful of graduate students at a time.

Recent years, however, have seen a steep rise in interest in the field, and Georgia Tech has positioned itself as a national leader.

That leadership is again on display this week at IEEE VIS 2017 in Phoenix, Ariz., where Georgia Tech is presenting six conference papers, two journal articles, six workshop papers, and six posters across the multiple co-located conferences – Visual Analytics Science and Technology (VAST), Information Visualization (InfoVis), and Scientific Visualization (SciVis), among others.

“Most universities have a vis person,” Stasko explained. “Maybe one. There are a few places that have more than that. With the faculty and resources we have now, I think we’re among the biggest presences out there. At the visualization conferences, people know about us. They know we’re a force.”

Rising Interest Leads to Diverse Research

There are a number of indicators that point to the rising emphasis in the field, both in academia and beyond.

For one, there has been a tremendous growth in course enrollments at Georgia Tech.

“If that’s an indicator of interest, then, yes, the appetite is definitely there,” said Associate Professor Rahul Basole, who joined IC in 2012.

The CS 4460, Introduction to Information Visualization, class is taught every semester – spring, summer, and fall – frequently garnering over 100 students in each session.

“And there’s even higher demand than that,” Stasko said.

Beyond that, though, there are endless fields that utilize or could utilize expertise in visual analytics and information visualization, from health care to financial technology, sports to public policy, international affairs, and more.

“Data can come from anything,” said IC Assistant Professor Alex Endert, who came to Georgia Tech in 2013. “More and more domains are becoming data-driven. They’re collecting data, and they’re saying, ‘How do we make sense of this? What do I know now that I didn’t know before?’ I think that’s where vis plays a big role.”

With the support of former IC school chair Annie Antón and others, the Georgia Tech Visualization Lab grew five-fold over the course of the past decade.

Professor Jim Foley began working in information visualization with Stasko about 10 years ago, focusing on teaching the 4460 undergraduate course. Basole, Endert, and School of Computational Science & Engineering (CSE) Assistant Professor Polo Chau joined the mix shortly thereafter. Others, like CSE Professor Haesun Park, regularly contribute to research in the field, as well. Each brings what Basole called a “slightly different flavor,” establishing well-rounded resources to potential students and industry partners.

Basole looked at the field through the lens of enterprise, mapping complex markets and providing organizational-level visualizations. Endert comes at it from angles of human-computer interaction, machine learning, and data mining, among others. Stasko saw the skyrocketing amount of available data, fueled by the growth of the internet, and became focused on providing tools to analyze and understand these data sets.

“More students are joining because we have such a diverse set of research areas that are complimentary to each other,” Basole said.

“Georgia Tech has the perfect culture for collaborative research,” Chau added. “Students are encouraged to collaborate to innovate across disciplines. Faculty can easily work across schools and colleges and with industry partners.”

Diverse expertise means diverse areas of study for students at every level, as well. Six classes examining different areas of information visualization and visual and data analytics are offered to both undergraduate and graduate students at Georgia Tech:

  • CS 4460
  • CS 7450 – Information Visualization, offered every fall
  • CS 8803 CV – Data Visualization: Principles and Applications, a new course that began last spring primarily for Scheller College of Business MBA students and those in the one-year Data Analytics master’s program
  • CS 8803 VDA – Visual Data Analysis
  • CS 8803 VEA – Visual Enterprise Analytics
  • In CSE, Chau offers a combined undergraduate and graduate course, CX 4242/CSE 6242 – Data and Visual Analytics – that has between 150-200 students per term, as well.

“I can confidently say that if you come here interested in visualization and you take the number of courses that we have available, you are more than likely to leave with a well-rounded education in what it means to do visualization,” Endert said. “I don’t know many other universities that can make that claim.”

Opportunities for Industry

Beyond the resources the College offers in the academic setting, which also include a spacious lab and equipment for use by students and researchers, faculty members see a future that could also face outward to the greater Atlanta landscape.

Basole pointed to the growth in associated industry in Atlanta – like the NCR Corporation, which is building a new headquarters in Technology Square, and audit, tax, and advisory firm KPMG, which is opening an innovation hub in Midtown – as opportunity for collaboration.

And then, of course, there is a rise in visualization in areas like public policy and the news media.

“For them to understand all the things we are doing in here, that would be incredibly beneficial,” Basole said. “If industry understood the capabilities we have in analyzing data and making it more accessible to everyone, that would be a win-win for everyone.”

In the meantime, they will take advantage of the resources they have to lead the way in research that pushes the boundaries of the field.

“We’re in an envious position,” Stasko said.

“We have opportunities coming from inside and outside, industry and government. The ability for us to digest and be able to deliver on that is the biggest challenge. We would love to continue to attract more bright Ph.D. students to the program. That is essential, and will allow us to explore areas that haven’t really been explored before.”

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