Make it Visual and They Will Come – RIC Students Build Innovative Software

Data Visualization

In 2020 two undergraduate students built a data visualization, Web-based software program over the course of 10 weeks called SimpleChartsRI. 

Matthew Spaulding ’20 designed the basic program (assisted by Samantha Palacio ’21) and rising senior Sean Khang enhanced its useability and functionality in 2021.

Data visualization is the physical act of taking raw, unorganized data and putting it into a visual format – maps, charts, graphs, etc. The power of visual data is that it’s easier for the human mind to interpret and draw conclusions from.

RIC Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Information Systems Sally Hamouda is leading the SimpleChartsRI project, which was funded by a $500,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Institutional lead on the grant is RIC Associate Professor of Biology Anabela Maia.

Maia and Hamouda
From left, Associate Professor of Biology Anabela Maia and Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Information Systems Sally Hamouda

Maia explains that the purpose of the NSF grant is to assess the health of Narragansett Bay through the research work of faculty, staff, students and post-docs at various higher education institutions in Rhode Island. “Although the grant has a research thrust, NSF is also concerned with workforce development,” she says. That’s where data visualization comes in.

“In Rhode Island, there’s a big workforce gap in data analysts,” Hamouda explains. “Our work on the grant is to help fill that gap. If we can teach data visualization and data analytics early – in high school – perhaps we can get students interested in it as a career.”

For the last two summers, Hamouda and Maia have held workshops on data visualization for high school teachers and introduced them to SimpleChartsRI and two other data visualization programs – Infogram and Python.

Graph
Sample graph produced by SimpleChartsRI Web-based software

What’s great about SimpleChartsRI, Hamouda says, is that teachers don't have to go out and find data on particular topics; Khang has already added a variety of datasets to the software such as data on cancer rates, COVID deaths, e-cigarettes, plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. All a teacher need do is have their students select a chart of their choosing, pour in the data, analyze it and draw conclusions from it.

SimpleChartsRI also includes datasets collected from research on Narragansett Bay, allowing teachers to both teach on the health of the bay and teach data visualization.

Data-Visualization-2.jpg

“The beauty of this grant is that in training teachers and students in how to use data visualization, we’re making them not only ambassadors of data analytics but ambassadors of the health of the bay,” says Maia.

The SimpleChartsRI website includes an online book of lesson plans for teachers on a variety of subjects, including computer science, English, math, science and social studies. In other words, data visualization can be applied to any area of study. There's also an online book of activities for students, featuring automatic grading.

Khang
Sean Khang stands beside his poster at conference

Software developers Spaulding and Khang wrote research papers on their work and Khang presented his research at a recent computer science conference.

“I’m really impressed with our students,” says Hamouda. “They are clever and hardworking. They’ve built a program that is easy to use and easy to teach.”

Workshop attendees agree. They reported that they intend to incorporate data visualization into their classrooms in the future.

“And that’s the whole point,” says Hamouda. “To make data visualization mainstream in the high school curriculum and to get students interested in data analytics as a career.”

Though funding for this project ends in 2022, a new NSF grant has been submitted to continue the work. Maia, Hamouda and Khang intend to improve on the functionality of SimpleChartsRI, using feedback from teachers.