UH Hilo students apply cutting-edge data visualization techniques to real-world scientific data

The students are using data from the natural sciences to create interactive and immersive data visualizations to promote public awareness of environmental issues facing Hawaiian ecosystems.

Student at computer with two large screens.
Research assistant Erica Ta works on converting complicated data sets to a visualized image. The image allows for easier understanding of the data by scientists and the general public.

By Leah Sherwood. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri.

The art, geography, and computer science departments at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo are teaming up this semester to offer a data visualization course (CS/ART/NSCI 475 + Lab). The course is multidisciplinary and promotes collaboration among teams of students from within the three departments. Ryan Perroy, associate professor of geography, will be providing most of the data used in the class, including data collected by drone research related to the recent Kīlauea lava eruption and the epidemic of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death caused by the fungus Ceratocystis.

In addition to Perroy, the class is team taught by UH Hilo faculty Jon Goebel, associate professor of art, and Keith Edwards, professor of computer science and engineering.

The team-taught course teaches students data visualization techniques, where large data sets are converted into simply designed presentations. The students are taught hands-on skills for creating effective data visualization products and tools that can be applied to a broad range of scientific disciplines.

“Visualization is important not just for communicating to the public, but for scientific understanding more generally,” says Edwards. “How do you visualize large amounts of data? How do you organize that data or further analyze it to identify trends and outliers?”

The technology

Each class meeting consists of a short lecture followed by laboratory time at the Computer Science Data Visualization lab, where students work with different software applications to build their visualizations, including 3D sculpting and painting tools (Sculpt GL and Mudbox) and platforms such as Pix4D (photogrammetry software for drone mapping) and CloudCompare (3D point cloud processing software).

Student and professor, student holds controller.
Associate Professor of Geography Ryan Perroy works with student using handheld controller to manipulate data in visualization images. Click to enlarge.

The lab is also equipped with CyberCANOE (acronym for Cyber Enabled Collaboration Analysis Navigation and Observation Environment), a large screen format with ultra high resolution and 3D-enabled flat-screen displays connected to a high-performance computer. Using 3D goggles and handheld controllers a user can manipulate data while fully immersed in the visualization.

The CyberCANOE uses the SAGE2 (Scalable Amplified Group Environment) open source software to simultaneously connect and communicate to other CyberCANOEs in the UH System and multiple sites around the world. SAGE2 was developed through collaborations between UH Mānoa’s Laboratory for Advanced Visualization and Applications (LAVA), University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) and UH Hilo’s Department of Computer Science. The class receives funding from UH Manoa’s Academy of Creative Media (ACM) and technology support from UH Manoa’s LAVA.

(In addition to the CyberCANOE at the UH Hilo computer science department, there are two others set up on campus, one at Mookini Library and the other at ʻImiloa Astronomy Center.)

The teamwork

Group photo of classmates and three profs.
Data visualization professors with class. Drone used to collect data is in foreground. Click to enlarge.

The interdisciplinary approach of the course enables students from their respective disciplines to contribute complementary skills to their final group projects. The science and geography students contribute data analysis and synthesis and oversee the final project’s scientific narrative. The computer science students develop a framework for scientific data access, manipulation, and visualization techniques. The art students create concept sketches and storyboards, design graphics, and work with 3D modeling software to create and refine the models.

“Everyone is getting a little bit of art, a little bit of geography, and some computer science during the lectures,” says Goebel. “Some students tend to gravitate towards their discipline, but some will be able to utilize all three of the disciplines in a useful way towards their projects.”

Goebel notes that the interdisciplinary nature of the class is what makes it unique.

“The dynamic is really good because we all have skills we can contribute as faculty,” he says. “We have students who are creative and artsy even though they are in different disciplines, and when we ask them to form their groups we encourage them to balance out their groups with a good mix of talent. We’re throwing the students into this rock tumbler because we want them to learn to work in the real world collaborating with different people and personalities.”

Stacey Yanagihara, a computer science major at UH Hilo, enrolled in the class as a way to build on the 3D solid modeling and computer-aided drafting and design skills she acquired in previous classes.

“Personally, I’m a visual learner, so being able to visualize a problem makes it easier for me to grasp and understand it,” she says. “I’m hoping to learn how to be a little bit more creative from this class.” Yanagihara also believes the skills she learns this semester will help her reach her goal of designing virtual reality applications in the future.

At the end of the semester, each of the four student groups in the class will share their completed data visualizations of real-world scientific data in a public forum. The final projects will all utilize data from the natural sciences to create interactive and immersive data visualizations to promote public awareness of environmental issues facing Hawaiian ecosystems.

This post was edited on March 1, 2019, to clarify the SAGE2 description and class funding, and to add two photos of students with professors.

About the author of this story: Leah Sherwood is a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.

About the photographer: Raiatea Arcuri is a professional photographer majoring in business at UH Hilo. He was awarded USA Young Landscape Photographer of the Year 2016 (read his blog post about the winning photograph).

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