The Wiener Center is home to the new Data Visualization Lab, created by three faculty affiliates, and led by Gordon Hanson, Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy. It was Hanson’s vision to develop a tool that would enhance the impact of scholarly research by creating and making available visually compelling representations of data and other information that would reach larger audiences. We spoke recently with Hanson about the Lab, how it got off the ground, and how students will be involved.
Q1: Please tell us about the inspiration for launching the Lab. How did the idea come about?
A: Shortly after I arrived at HKS, I met with David Deming to discuss ideas for projects that I might undertake at the Malcolm Wiener Center. As it turns out, we were both thinking about data visualization as a tool we could use to communicate insights from research to the broader world and let students develop and deploy new data skills. When Sandra Smith arrived at HKS shortly thereafter, she was also taken by the idea and the Data Visualization Lab was born.
Q2: How will the Lab serve as a resource for faculty and scholars in helping promote their research and enhancing its impact?
A: As academics, we spend a lot time talking to each other and not enough time sharing our research with general audiences. This parochialism is in part a consequence of the analytical rigor of our work, which raises communication barriers with the non-academic world. A major goal of the Data Viz Lab is to break down these barriers. We believe that the Lab will give faculty a platform to present their work in a way that is engaging and broadly accessible, without losing the analytical punch that makes research exciting. Faculty will use the platform to craft interactive visual stories that will use images, graphical tools, and text to examine key social policy challenges and solutions to address them.
Q3: How will students be involved in the Lab’s work?
A: Students will be the driving force behind the Lab. To start, we have five student editors working together and with faculty. Student editors will publish their own content on the platform, help in editing and refining content submitted by others, and work with faculty to develop data visualizations and narrative arcs related to faculty research. Some student contributions may be a simple as a single image or a one-page story. Others will be more involved pieces that explore topics at depth. The idea is to keep the material current while also creating content that lets users take deeper dives into the subject matter.
Q4: Who are the other Wiener Center faculty affiliates involved in this project?
A: The founding core is David Deming, Sandra Smith, and me. David is developing content based on his research on disparities in higher education, Sandra’s themes are related to her work on mass incarceration and criminalization, and my contributions will address the origins of regional economic divides in the U.S. and what we can do to close them.
Q5: How do you see the Lab and its work evolving over time?
A: We are designing the platform to be dynamic and interactive. The dynamic part will come from continually updating the data behind the visualizations, so that we are creating content that evolves with the subject matter we are covering. The interactivity will hopefully lure people in and help us understand which types of visualizations are most effective at communicating ideas. We hope to use the Lab to expand HKS course offerings on data visualization and create an experience that HKS students can immerse themselves in upon arriving on campus and which will continue throughout their time at the school.