Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Seeing the big picture on Big Data

Dr. Meyer is a computer scientist at the University of Utah
How much water will the west have in the future? This is just one of the questions CI-WATER is trying to answer, and it’s a big one. Big questions in science usually yield important answers, but first and foremost, they produce data, and lots of it. This Big Data, which is difficult to analyze and sort through, is important, but before it can be useful, it must first be understood.
This is where computer scientists, like Dr. Miriah Meyer come in.
“I create interactive visualization tools to help scientists understand their data,” says Dr. Meyer, who will be presenting “Visualizing Data: Why an Interactive Picture is Worth 1,000 Numbers” on May 29th at the Natural History Museum of Utah at the Rio Tinto Center, in conjunction with the Second Annual  CI-WATER Symposium.
Dr. Meyer became interested in visualization systems while working at a software engineering company after earning her bachelor’s degree in astronomy.
“I love the thought process of computer science,” Dr. Meyer says. “I like to build things as opposed to study them.”
Dr. Meyer’s work isn’t all building however. In order to understand her clients’ needs for a visualization system, she must first understand them, their project and the need for the data. So, she studies them and in doing so, she determines where the visualization tool will be useful, then matches the data type with the visual technique, or creates a new technique, if necessary. These visualization tools, in the form of charts and graphs, are more useful than lengthy spreadsheets, and help researches get a stronger grasp on the outcomes of their work.
Visualization tools, however, aren’t only used by scientists.
“Every aspect of our lives now uses computer science,” Dr. Meyer explains. “The reason I like computer science is that I get to work in just about any field I’d like.”
Currently, Dr. Meyer is working on a tool for a poetry project, a finance project and several scientific projects. Because of the variability of the projects, Dr. Meyer encourages all students to explore this field.
“I think computer science is something everyone should try,” she says. “And, anyone can do it with some degree of work.”
Computer science is a growing field, and one in need of more diversity, Dr. Meyer says. The less diversity there is in the field, the less innovation, because not all technology needs are being recognized. As the STEM fields become more team driven, Dr. Meyer sees an even greater need for diversity in computer science.
“The future of STEM isn’t just about raw analytic skills anymore,” Dr. Meyer says. “Other skills, such as empathy and compassion are just as important.”
Dr. Meyer’s talk on May 29th will examine how interactive visualization systems support people working with Big Data and how these systems are an essential component in research today. While she is not working directly on the CI-WATER project, her message on visualization tools is important to the project because it offers scientists new ways of interpreting research.
“Scientific data often has a large amount of complexity, so using visual channels helps create better representations,” Dr. Meyer says. “Prototypes of these tools often lead to new questions scientists have never asked.”
More information about Dr. Meyer’s work can be found at:
To register for Dr. Meyer’s talk, please visit the CI-WATER website.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo courtesy of Utah Education Network

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