Visualization challenge teaches the art of telling data’s stories
The winning team's presentation

The winning team’s presentation

At first blush, Translational Data Analytics and creativity might seem worlds apart. When it comes to data collection, after all, “creative” is often a euphemism for “corrupt.”

However, data analysis and data collection are two very different things, and creativity is exactly what competitors in the 2016 Ohio State Student Data Visualization Challenge were encouraged to exercise. Management Sciences Professor and TDA Faculty in Residence Elliot Bendoly, PhD, created the event, which asks teams of students to take a set of undigested data and create a meaningful visualization from it. He describes the contest using terms such as “open-ended,” “free reign” and, yes, “creative.”

The challenge, which in its second year is officially an annual event, is not just a competition; it’s also a chance to make a difference by helping a non-profit organization. “We try to work with non-profits,” says Bendoly. “Often times they have piles of data but don’t know how to use it.” This year’s contest featured data compiled from the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

Representing majors across Ohio State ranging from architecture to diplomacy, 36 participants formed collaborative teams of three that were charged with generating useful, descriptive, predictive and prescriptive depictions of the possible meanings of the data from state food banks. The judging rubric was based on five factors: validity, efficiency, completeness, novelty and practicality. The outcome of the competition was a collection of visualizations that tell a story.

The best sorts of stories, says Bendoly, challenge assumptions with new views of data. Ultimately, a visualization should neither overwhelm nor underwhelm the audience with data. Much like great art, “it has to be truthful and accurate to the audience and the self,” he says.

Mohamed Camara, a member of the winning team, found that unlocking the stories within data requires focusing on the data that matter. “The biggest thing I learned was to be able to overlook unnecessary data that may just be there to distract you,” says Camera, a third-year business student specializing in information systems and economics.

The 2016 champions also learned that audiences aren’t the only ones at risk of feeling overwhelmed by data. Team member Yidi Wu warns that, from a contestant’s perspective, the amount of data presented at the beginning of the project might seem insurmountable. Ultimately, coursework at Ohio State provided the keys to victory. “I used what professors taught me in classes to draw about 20 graphs, then we picked several to use,” Wu says.

In addition to creativity, the challenge taught students the value of tenacity. A second-year accounting major who is minoring in economics, Wu has advice for future competitors: “The most important thing is to never give up.”

 

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