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How information design eases our understanding of the world

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“How do you land a 2,000-pound rover on a planet 100 mil­lion miles away from Earth without con­trol­ling it in real time?” asked Mark Davis, an Emmy-​​winning pro­ducer and director of sci­ence and tech­nology doc­u­men­taries for PBS, National Geo­graphic, and the Dis­covery Channel.

Davis answered that ques­tion in his doc­u­men­tary on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover, using dig­ital models to explain how the craft man­aged to land smoothly on the red planet after trav­eling some 13,000 miles per hour through the solar system.

“Ani­ma­tion is very restric­tive,” Davis explained, “but dig­ital models will give you as real­istic a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a landing as possible.”

2013 Information Design and Data Visualization symposium

Davis spoke at a day­long sym­po­sium at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity last week titled “Infor­ma­tion Design and Data Visu­al­iza­tion: Boston 2013.” The con­fer­ence, spon­sored in part by the North­eastern Center for the Arts and the Col­lege of Arts, Media, and Design, con­vened many of the field’s leading the­o­rists, researchers, and prac­ti­tioners to explore the prin­ci­pals of infor­ma­tion design and the chal­lenges pre­sented by “big data.”

The sym­po­sium aligned with Northeastern’s effort to serve as the edu­ca­tional leader in under­standing big data through infor­ma­tion design. This fall, North­eastern will launch a Master of Fine Arts in Infor­ma­tion Design and Visu­al­iza­tion, a two-​​year inter­dis­ci­pli­nary pro­gram focused on the ana­lyt­ical com­mu­ni­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion. Gallery 360 is cur­rently hosting an exhi­bi­tion show­casing the graphic design prin­ci­ples devel­oped by the pio­neers of Swiss Style, which is char­ac­ter­ized by clear, func­tional, and highly crafted visual communication.

Nathan Felde, pro­fessor and chair of the Depart­ment of Art + Design, under­scored the impor­tance of data visu­al­iza­tion in his opening remarks, noting that we use infor­ma­tion to forge rela­tion­ships with each other and the world.

“Like Galileo’s tele­scope, data visu­al­iza­tion lets us see things that were pre­vi­ously invis­ible to us,” added Peter Wieder­spahn, CAMD’s asso­ciate dean of aca­d­emic and fac­ulty affairs.

The symposium’s speakers spanned a range of fields, from jour­nalism and pho­tog­raphy to com­puter sci­ence and social entrepreneurship.

Casper Harteveld, an assis­tant pro­fessor of game design and inter­ac­tive media at North­eastern, pre­sented a com­pelling case for teaching people to iden­tify, assess, and avert envi­ron­mental risk through the use of serious videogames.

He led the design of the 3D videogame Levee Patroller, which trains inspec­tors to iden­tify and respond to levee fail­ures. Those who played the game were much more likely to accu­rately iden­tify fail­ures in the real world than those who did not, he said, adding that novices trans­formed into experts in rec­og­nizing levee sus­cep­ti­bility after only three weeks of play.

“Games are expe­ri­en­tial and safe,” he explained. “You can fail without suf­fering the con­se­quences.” The key to designing a good serious game, he added, is “finding a bal­ance between fun a realism.”

Ger­shon Dublon, a research assis­tant in the Respon­sive Envi­ron­ments Group at the MIT Media Lab, described his effort to orga­nize spa­tial data in order to ana­lyze the activ­i­ties, sys­tems, and rela­tion­ships in a com­plex, sensor-​​rich environment.

He designed a real-​​time vir­tual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Media Lab using building-​​wide sen­sors that cap­ture data about the space and its inhab­i­tants. Users can explore sensor data visu­al­iza­tions within the lab, wherein icons such as musical notes rep­re­sent audio levels and blue flames sig­nify cold rooms.

“New tools are needed to orga­nize and syn­the­size dis­parate sensor data for human con­sump­tion and explo­ration,” Dublon explained in a video on the project’s website.

“How information design eases our understanding of the world” was originally published by news@Northeastern.