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Tableau co-founder Pat Hanrahan talks about the promising future of big data

February 02, 2016
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By Ian Bryce

Big data is fast becoming one of the largest technological and social shifts in the past five years. With businesses, governments, and experts gathering copious amounts of data on populations, questions arise about how this information is collected and what we should do with all of it.

This January, Simon Fraser University launched the 2016 President’s Dream Colloquium on engaging big data. The lecture series explores the implications of collecting, analyzing and using big data.

One area of focus is data visualization, a topic that Pat Hanrahan, Stanford computer graphics professor and co-founder of the highly successful data visualization software company, Tableau, is very familiar with.

“Visualization is more about the utility of data,” says Hanrahan. “I call visual analytics functional images—you want to help people navigate through a problem like using a map.”

Hanrahan, a founding member of Pixar and a three-time Oscar-award winner (for technical achievement), will speak as a special guest lecturer on engaging big data at SFU’s Vancouver campus on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

“As a computer scientist, I’m a tool builder and interested in making data more accessible to people,” says Hanrahan.

 In the lecture, he will explore the development of data analysis tools and whom they will benefit.

He says that while data visualization is useful, not all data needs to be translated into an image.

“To me, it’s all about how you think with visuals,” he says. “The visualization of the data is going to engage your brain in a way that will help you. If people need to be involved in the interpretation of the data, you want people to be able to see all of the relevant information.”

A trend in research and development around big data is how data collection and analysis can automate processes. Innovations in automation can be as significant as creating driverless cars or as mundane as curating movie suggestions on Netflix.

However, Hanrahan says that there can be a misplaced confidence in data—while computers can collect massive amounts of specific types of data, there is much information that they cannot process.

“People have all sorts of information in their brain—common sense that they use every day,” he says. “Computers have no knowledge of any of that information. How can you expect a computer, no matter how good it is, to make a decision if it’s missing all of that information?”

Because of the lack of common sense knowledge, says Hanrahan, the need for the immediate future will be to have more ‘data literate’ experts and professionals.

“I’m mostly interested in how people interact with data and helping them become good data analysts. If you’re a college-educated person, what should you know about data and what kind of skills should you have?”

You can register to hear Pat Hanrahan and other lectures surrounding big data on the President’s Dream Colloquium website.