Aug. 1, 2018

How data empowers people and communities

UCalgary researchers study how open access to real-time data, innovative data storytelling and interdisciplinary collaborations are bringing data to life for an increasing number of people.

Knowledge is power. Information is power. These much-used phrases are accepted as truth. But for information – for data – to be powerful and empowering, it needs to be accessible, understandable and digestible. Data-informed decision making should not be limited to professors and data scientists who know how to analyze it. Non-technical experts and the public need to be able to easily use and benefit from data, too.

True data empowerment is about finding ways to make data useful and appealing to everyone. One real-life example of this is an interdisciplinary team of researchers who work with local Inuit communities to bring open-access real-time data to one of the most remote parts of the world.

ArcticSensorWeb is an open-source cloud software system that enables 158 research stations (and counting) throughout the Arctic to connect their disparate weather sensors. The amalgamated real-time weather data is then published on the web in formats that remote Northern communities, the public and scientists can use. The site is already live, with an interactive map of the Arctic that links to each weather station, but is set to officially launch this summer (with a new, easier-to-use web interface). The project is led by Dr. Brent Else, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts.

“We know that Inuit communities are using the data,” says Else, who has talked with locals who use the web interface to check real-time wind and ice conditions before they go out boating or travelling across the ice.

“The next step is to get other types of useful information to Northern communities. We just installed some super-cool green energy labs at a couple sites near Cambridge Bay. My Inuit partners have told me that they would like to try to use these stations to do things like monitor wildlife – particularly whales – install some webcams, watch for ships, help out with search and rescue, and a bunch of other things. ArcticSensorWeb might be able to play a role in getting that information to communities.”

In 2017, ArcticSensorWeb was one of five University of Calgary research teams to receive subgrants funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through UCalgary Libraries and Cultural Resources’ Academic Research and University Libraries project. It’s an effort to enhance the role libraries play in multidisciplinary research, particularly next-gen data curation, sharing and digitization. Two other UCalgary-based projects which received these grants also show how big data analysis, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration, can enhance the work of experts from a variety of fields – like nursing and literature – by tapping in to the power of data to inform and empower the public.

How data influences community health care

The idea for creating the open-access Urban Healthscapes: Empathic Cultural Mapping web tool started with Dr. Suzanne Goopy, PhD, an associate professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Nursing. Goopy had a desire “to take research out to the people so that everyone can use it. It’s really about knowledge translation and exchange,” she says.

Goopy’s research has always used qualitative data, such as field interviews, gathered using social anthropological research methods, as a way to start conversations about topics like access to health care and quality of life. “I’ve always shied away, a little bit myself, from big data,” she says. But the Mellon subgrant gave her the opportunity to work with data librarians and use the library’s data resources in ways that she hadn’t before. “I wanted to use big data to map people’s lives, and bring big data to life a little bit. It’s so easy for big data to feel inaccessible.”

To do this, she fused the first-person narrative stories of six recent immigrants to Calgary – for example, their challenges navigating a city without a car to get to doctor’s appointments or work – with interactive, data-rich neighbourhood maps where these immigrants live. The interactive maps enliven data like walkability scores, bus routes, crime rates, resident participation in communities, historical immigration data, and more. “I wanted to open up a conversation about the real-life implication of the numbers,” Goopy says, of the data gathered from sources like Statistics Canada, the City of Calgary and Calgary Police Services.

Goopy went further than interactive maps – she used data-gathering tools such as a tiny GoPro camera to show that a winter journey from the Calgary neighbourhood of Forest Lawn to the Alberta Children’s Hospital did not take the 70 minutes that a transit app projected. It took six hours. You can actually watch the (significantly sped up) video of the journey embedded into the project. “It’s an empathetic way of looking at data – people can actually visualize it, interact with it and use it,” she says.

How data storytelling benefits the public

Goopy wants the combined personal stories, data maps and videos to help the public, various levels of government and social agencies to see how their decisions impact quality of life. And to answer questions like, what would it take for someone to keep using transit? “Because to me it’s more than affordable transit – it doesn’t matter if it’s free if you can’t get there,” she says.

Data like this can also help health-care providers understand the complexities of challenges like why a percentage of people don’t turn up for health appointments. “The question has to be, what is going on in somebody’s life that is making it impossible for them to show up?” 

This kind of data mapping and data visualization is an important tool to understand how small decisions like a bus route change, or the closure of a nearby store that sells fresh fruit and vegetables, can have health implications. If a patient is recovering from surgery and a doctor prescribes exercise to aid recovery, the walkability score in the patient’s community, or the distance to the community pool, has an impact on care.

“I want to highlight elements that I think are connected from what we know in research about social and economic determinants of health – they affect most of our top preventable chronic diseases. I’ve tried to include information that will prompt people to reflect and engage on those things in their own way. Layering different kinds of data adds a layer of complexity and contextualization,” says Goopy. “It’s so important because context drives many diseases.”

How collaboration enriches data's potential

Dr. Stefania Forlini, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts, is another UCalgary researcher who never expected she would take a deep digital data dive. She's working on The Stuff of Science Fiction, an experimental, interdisciplinary literary data visualization project, with Dr. Uta Hinrichs, who earned her PhD in computational media design at UCalgary and is now a lecturer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Their work has led to the publication of a paper on the different forms collaboration can take between computer science and the humanities.

“We found that collaborating throughout the process was actually much richer than other approaches, such as contracting out the technical aspects of a project,” says Forlini. “It raised questions for both disciplines in ways that we couldn’t have done if we were working more separately. That really opened up areas that we didn’t foresee.” The professors have presented their work to research communities in information, visualization and computer science as well as literary studies and digital humanities.

The Stuff of Science Fiction project didn’t actually start with vast amounts of digital data – it began with literally truckloads of unconventional handmade scrapbooks. One of five UCalgary projects which received the Mellon libraries subgrant funding, the project uses computation assistance to analyze and categorize the Bob Gibson Collection of Speculative Fiction – a hard-copy haul of 888 handmade anthologies containing snippets of 35,000 periodicals, books, stories and ephemera. Housed at UCalgary, it’s one of the world’s most important archives of early science fiction (before it was even called that) and dates back to the 1770s. 

The first phase of the project used optical character recognition scanning, algorithms and data visualization to collate, map and keyword key parts of the content in ways that make it usable, accessible and engaging to both researchers and the public via the project’s interactive website. The project was also showcased at The Calgary Public Library and generated significant interest among sci-fi enthusiasts.

How to deal with data complexities

“When you have a massive amount of stories like this, the question is ‘How do you process that?’ Cognitively, it’s difficult to keep in mind,” says Forlini. “Maybe you can read and remember 10 or even 20 stories, but even that becomes difficult. If you want to see the collection’s trends across time, across writers, or periodicals, then we need to augment our cognition using technology and computer science.

“There is a term in literary studies called ‘distant reading,’ and it’s the idea that instead of reading a huge text really carefully – like we tend to do in literary studies – that you can, in fact, use computational assistance or visualization or other forms of data analysis to look at a much broader range of text. Like you might track specific features across a number of keywords or do specialized word counts.”

The second phase of The Stuff of Science Fiction project uses raking light image-scanning technology, which can reveal an object’s surface topography, combined with a set of calculations, to analyze different paper surface textures in the Gibson collection and determine their differences. This computational analysis, suggested by Dr. John Brosz, PhD, the Research Data and Visualization Coordinator at UCalgary’s Taylor Family Digital Library, is a way to use technology to quantify the hard-to-see differences in the paper. The technique can reveal historical information embedded in the physical aspects of the collection, which is in danger of being lost with digitization.

“Digital forms don’t typically preserve things like the size of the paper or the paper quality," says Forlini. "But these things actually tell us a lot about how a periodical was produced historically and where they fit in the literary market. For example, in the Victorian era, you had more expensive monthly magazines which were made on finer paper. And then you had cheaper weekly magazines that were made on pulpier paper. Each catered to slightly different audiences, attracted different authors and showcased different kinds of stories. The question became, could we tell from the paper, linking it to the content, what kinds of contributions monthly magazines were making?” The Stuff of Science Fiction team continues to analyze the data, and once completed, it will be added to the website.

Still, Forlini believes the question of data is problematic from the humanities perspective. “The methods we used for this project are new, they are speculative. We’re not making data simpler, but rather we’re working to understand how complex it is. We want to push people to think ‘How do we represent data in multiple perspectives?’ Data representations are not neutral.

“Of course, as a humanist, I’m going to look at the history of the word ‘data.’ And it means ‘that which is given.’ And in the humanities, ‘the given’ is not so given. It's open to interpretation,” says Forlini. “But I think that's where the humanities are needed, because even for people involved in data science and analysis, they're asking, ‘Where is this data coming from?’ Because by the time you’ve analyzed the data, you've already made so many decisions. What to count, who counts, how to count it – and then how to represent it. And all those steps are questions that people should be alerted to and that should be open for debate and discussion.”

How to encourage data collaboration

Brosz, whose PhD is in computer graphics, not only lent his talents to The Stuff of Science Fiction project as well as Goopy’s Urban Healthscapes: Empathic Cultural Mapping tool. He also manages the Visualization Studio at UCalgary, which has a wall-sized, 35-million-pixel screen, a tool he uses to help scholars from a variety of fields to access, view and integrate data into their work. “People come into the lab and they can look at their data sets and large images, and work with their data – they can lay it out on the screen and have room to work with it,” he says.

Brosz has also worked with The Innovations in Visualization Laboratory and The Interactions Lab, which study human computer interactions, both out of the Department of Computer Science. These are just a few of the interdisciplinary data collection and data analysis resources, groups and labs at UCalgary that an increasing number of researchers and industry partners are turning to for data collaboration and assistance.

Next door to the Visualization Studio in the Taylor Family Digital Library is Spatial and Numeric Data Services, where researchers can find Statistics Canada licensed microdata, aggregate data, air photos and maps. Next door to that, is the Prairie Regional Research Data Centre, which has confidential Statistics Canada data and master files. Researchers must go through a rigorous applications process to access this information. Using these data sources and tools, along with spatial analysis software, data mapping software and data visualization software, data librarians can help scholars and students merge, enrich and contextualize their own research data and other externally sourced data.

Three more of the most noteworthy data-focused labs on the UCalgary campus include the industry-leading Reservoir Simulation Research Group, which is part of the Schulich School of Engineering’s Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Department. Here, a group of more than 80 researchers from diverse specializations are collaborating with industry partners to mine field data, lab experiments, physical and mathematical models, parallel computing and 3D data modeling to find new ways to optimize energy industry resources and extraction efforts.

Earlier this year, UCalgary launched another key player: the Centre for Smart Emissions Sensing Technologies in the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Arts. The centre’s goal is to develop next-generation sensor systems – including fixed and mobile robotic “sniffer dog” drones, aircraft, vehicles and satellites – which fuse multi-sensory data with analytics and artificial intelligence to improve the ability to find and quantify methane emissions. It’s a way to help the oil and gas sector detect and measure where emissions are coming from, develop faster and more cost-efficient ways of doing so, and inform decision-making on reducing emissions.

And then there is the Human Performance Lab, a world-renowned centre out of the Faculty of Kinesiology, which is studying and collecting laboratory data related to human mobility, longevity and biomechanics – and it is increasingly doing so using real-world data gathered from wearable smart sensors.

As a huge cross-section of people with varying levels of data expertise continue to turn to these kinds of data labs, research groups and digital library services for analysis help, more and more people will be able to understand and share data in easier-to-use ways.

“How we support people in using data is changing,” says Brosz. “It’s really trying to look at what are we already doing differently with data? How can we do more – differently? How might we be able to help people understand and communicate data? That’s the challenge.”

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Dr. Brent Else, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary. His research interests include air-sea gas exchange processes in arctic seas, Arctic marine carbon cycles, ocean acidification, sea ice energy balance, sea ice gas exchange processes, remote sensing and biogeochemical modeling. He is the principal investigator for the ArcticSensorWeb project, an interdisciplinary team working with Inuit communities to publish accessible, real-time weather data in Northern communities. Read more about Brent

Dr. Suzanne Goopy, PhD, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include social anthropology, visual ethnography, the role that the visual can play in research as both a data collection tool and a research outcome, as well as an emphasis on interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to research. She has a special interest in visually mapping communities and her most recent works have focused on life history and exploring the relationships between well-being, health, youth, ageing, culture, and identity. Read more about Suzanne

Dr. Stefania Forlini, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of English in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary. Her research interests include late Victorian literature, the early evolution of science fiction and fin-de-siècle science, material culture and techno-culture (the ways in which our use of new technologies transforms our world). She is focused on cultivating a cross-disciplinary and historically comparative approach to fiction that engages with scientific and/or technological discourses. Her research project explores the emergence of science fiction in general-interest nineteenth-century periodicals using Bob Gibson's illustrated anthologies of collected science fiction short stories, which are part of UCalgary’s special collections. Read more about Stefania

Dr. John Brosz, PhD, is the Research Data and Visualization Coordinator at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Family Digital Library. As part of this role, he provides data visualization and research data management support, consultation, and training to scholars from a variety of areas across campus. He completed his PhD in computer science (computer graphics) with the Graphics Jungle Lab at the University of Calgary. His research interests include information visualization, computer graphics, 3D modeling and human-computer interfaces. He has done post-doctoral research with UCalgary’s Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale and the InnoVis Group. Read more about John


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