Information visualization researcher empowers people through data visualization

December 16, 2020

Data is changing our world — yet understanding and manipulating our increasingly complex data sets is far from simple. Simon Fraser University computing science professor Sheelagh Carpendale says this massive data proliferation is revolutionizing how information becomes available and points out that not everyone feels equally comfortable understanding data. Data generation and usage continues to explode, driving the importance of working towards developing technologies that will make this data more comprehensible, accessible and actionable. Understanding this, Carpendale’s research focuses on the challenge of creating interactive data visualizations that can improve data accessibility and comprehension to better support the increasing diversity of people who are impacted by data.

“A democratic society is based on an informed citizenry,” she says. “We are in danger of creating a new elite, dividing those who understand data from those who do not. In my research, I work towards leveling the playing field."

This week, Carpendale was awarded a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Information Visualization. In accepting her CRC appointment, Carpendale appreciates the importance of the recognition of her peers and the privilege of being able to concentrate on her research. She has previously received many awards, including being inducted into both the IEEE Visualization Academy and the ACM CHI Academy, receiving the IEEE Visualization Career Award, an E.W.R. NSERC Steacie Memorial Fellowship, and a BAFTA. She is also receiving funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund for her data visualization research.

She leads the Innovations in Visualization (InnoVis) Research Group and is working on establishing the new Interactive Experiences Lab (ixLab) with computer science professor Parmit Chilana. Carpendale's research on information visualization, interaction design and qualitative empirical research draws on her dual background in computer science (BSc and PhD) and visual arts (Sheridan College, School of Design and Emily Carr, College of Art).

By studying how people interact with information in both work and social settings, she works towards designing more inclusive, accessible and understandable interactive visual representations of data. She combines information visualization and human-computer interaction with innovative new interaction techniques to better support the everyday practices of people who are viewing, representing and interacting with data.

Carpendale suggests we take our ideas of data democratization broadly; looking to empower people, be inclusive and support diversity. Since modern society demands that people manage, communicate and interact with data at an ever-increasing pace, data has become a crucial part of life today. Data is now considered essential for many activities including working, playing, communicating, learning and socializing. Although people clearly benefit from digital data technologies, using them is frequently stressful and complex. The problem often lies not with the data itself but with the unwieldy technology offered for access. Carpendale works towards supporting people in all walks of life by improving data accessibility and comprehension through creating appropriate data visualization technologies that can help people negotiate the transformation of data into knowledge.