Data is the Medium

SAIC and Northwestern University Team Up to Teach Data Visualization Course with Art and Design Emphasis

by Ruth Lopez

Data Viz Collaborative: Information as Art, an unprecedented partnership between the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and Northwestern University (NU), is producing new ways for artists and engineers to reimagine data visualization and representation.

The summer course assembled 21 art and engineering students from SAIC and NU and challenged them to rethink data representation—a pure intersection of art and design. Julio Ottino, Dean of NU's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, reached out to Elissa Tenny, SAIC Provost to initiate the course.

"Dean Ottino felt that SAIC, being a prestigious school of art and design would be an ideal partner for a collaboration focused on art, design, and technology," says Tiffany Holmes, SAIC's Interim Dean of Undergraduate Studies. Holmes, whose own artwork has been informed by data, pushed for a class exploring data as art. "I realized how interdisciplinary this topic would be and thus would have great appeal to faculty," she says.

Students participated in one of three teams, engaging in collaborative research among a diverse array of skills and tackling real-world design situations that incorporate complex data sets. In these teams, students were encouraged to represent data and interpret underlying meanings. In the team setting, faculty sought to cultivate new skills for their students; as one faculty member said: "Don't worry if you aren't good at math; we can learn from each other."

The first team, Chicago Desk: Big Data and School Choice, was led by Luís Amaral, NU Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Bo Rodda, SAIC Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects. Amaral used the City of Chicago's Data Portal as a resource and selected data sets that would help reveal a complex system—test scores, school locations, socio-economic levels—at play in how parents might move their children to a better school.

The Mapping Genealogy and Ancestry team, led by Danny Abrams, NU Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, with Adam Trowbridge, SAIC Contemporary Practices, presented an idea using Korean census data from a set of family books (jokbo) spanning generations.

Eye Tracking: Tracing the Gaze in an Image
Eye Tracking: Tracing the Gaze in an Image


By the end of the first week, students had begun the generative process with their team members. Faculty provided guidance; Franconeri and Michael Golec, SAIC Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, proposed group brainstorming and analysis that would find intersections in ideas. Initially, Chicago Desk generated several possibilities involving mapping of public transportation and public school locations, while Mapping Genealogy came up with an idea for a light and mirror display that tracked nuptial migration patterns.The third team, Eye Tracking: Tracing the Gaze in an Image, was led by Steven Franconeri, NU Department of Psychology, and Jessica Westbrook, SAIC Contemporary Practices. While Franconeri's research includes visual attention and object tracking, he left the project open to students to use eye-tracking technology and the resources of the lab to create their own data set.

Eye Tracking students considered the idea of examining the phenomenon of "selfies," or the practice of taking a self-portrait. They asked: What do people focus on when they are looking at themselves?

As the process unfolded, the projects evolved. Chicago Desk included a series of maps and data visualizations that would depict the impact of public transit times on students across the city in choosing a high-performing school. The Mapping Genealogy team moved away from the light installation and later found a narrative in the complex history of more than 100,000 arranged marriages across a 500-year time span.

The Eye Tracking team refined the "selfie," collecting data in real-time by constructing a booth where viewers pose for a photograph, then are studied as they examine the image of themselves. An eye-tracking device transmitted information to custom software that produces a new portrait of the subject's gaze.

In a collaborative environment such as this, one would assume that the NU students came with strong math skills and SAIC students with creative chops. But there were many crossover talents and the desire for an interdisciplinary learning experience was mutual. Rodda states, "One of the challenges of the class was to create an environment where everyone could work through the idea and then get feedback and go back to it," he said. "In the end, the students developed a mutual respect for each other."

The results of these explorations are displayed in the Data Viz Collaborative exhibition, which runs August 16–22 at Gallery X (280 S. Columbus Dr., room 113) and August 16–October 4 at the LeRoy Neiman Center (37 S. Wabash Ave.). The exhibition will eventually travel to Northwestern University.

Learn more about Data Viz Collaborative.

Mapping Genealogy and Ancestry