“We all want to be able to read from the source,” notes Professor of Information Systems Kevin Mentzer ’91, Ph.D. In a time when we are bombarded with data in every aspect of our daily lives, it’s become easier to view that source information – and harder to understand what it actually means. In his Data Visualization course, Mentzer and his students examine the art and science of sharing that information in a meaningful way.
A good visualization has to do more than look good, Mentzer explains. It has to be clear; it has to be accurate, and it has to tell a compelling story. “It's the job of the person doing the data visualization to display it in a way that the public can understand what the numbers are actually saying,” he says.
Through the course, students explore techniques using a range of visualization programs and develop their coding abilities in the Python programming language. “It's a very open-ended and exploratory class,” says Leanne Kendall ’22. “Professor Mentzer introduces us to all sorts of data visualization tools, but then he lets you run with whatever you take the most interest in.”
In addition to the technical and data analysis skills students need to create good visualizations, they also develop their design sense and explore how concepts like shape, size, color, orientation, and motion make a difference in comprehension. “It wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I signed up for a class about data, but I’m so glad I took this course,” says Kendall’s classmate, Cameron Germaine ’21. “I feel a lot more creative because of it.”
“You can create your own thing that’s functional and useful, and when class is over you can show that to potential employers as an example of what you’re capable of."
Storytelling comes into play as well. Students learn how to tailor their approach to their clients, whether they are industry experts or the general public. “Different visualizations work better for different scenarios,” Mentzer explains. The course, he says, helps students develop a “critical eye” that helps them understand not only what works, but why and when.
A competitive advantage
“Data visualization is a skill that all companies are starting to appreciate more and more,” notes Mentzer, who brings his industry experience as a consultant, Sr. Systems Analyst, and Director of Software Development to the classroom. “It comes down to being able to explain your results.
For Germaine, it represents one of the most crucial jobs a person can have. “One of the most important things you can do with it is to help people make easier decisions, to see if whatever you’re doing is working or not working,” he states. “That’s extremely useful now and will be even more useful in the future as we rely on data more and more.”
“I was a hiring manager for 21 years, and I always tell students, ’If you can drive the interview, it's going to be much more successful for you,’ And the best way to drive the interview is to come to it prepared with some really cool things that show off your skills.”
The students were able to see firsthand what the skills they’re learning could accomplish via a guest lecture from Dustin Cabral '09, Principal Consultant for the leading-edge data analysis firm Cleartelligence, Inc. Cabral showed how he used visualization techniques to augment his presentations. “You could really see the artistry he brought to his work, and how all of the details of the things we’re learning about come together,” says Kendall.
“It was amazing to see what he could do,” adds Germaine.
For their final project students create their own visualizations using datasets they select. “You get to work on something you’re interested in and figure out what you want to do with it, which is really cool,” says Germaine who worked on a visualization “dashboard” comparing statistics across a range of streaming services. “You can create your own thing that’s functional and useful, and when class is over you can show that to potential employers as an example of what you’re capable of.”
“I was a hiring manager for 21 years, and I always tell students, ’If you can drive the interview, it's going to be much more successful for you,’” notes Mentzer. “And the best way to drive the interview is to come to it prepared with some really cool things that show off your skills.”
“We’re teaching students to be able to critically evaluate the information they’re confronted with, to ask ‘Is this true? Is it false, and is it the whole story?’
Beyond a potential career advantage, the skills the students are developing are important for everyone, even people who never go into a career in data science or information technology. “The things we’re learning about are everywhere you go, especially in the media around us,” states Kendall. “This isn’t just a class that teaches you how to create visualizations, it’s a class that teaches you how to really analyze them. I think everyone could benefit from this course.”
The material the class covers, Mentzer notes, is part of a larger mission to ensure that Bryant students are able to navigate an increasingly data-driven world. “We’re teaching students to be able to critically evaluate the information they’re confronted with, to ask ‘Is this true? Is it false, and is it the whole story?’ It’s important that graduates have a fundamental understanding of what data is available, where it’s coming from, and how we can use it,” he says.
“You have to make sure your graphics are telling the real story, not just telling the story you want to tell,”
“This is really a societal issue, especially since technology is advancing faster than the average person’s understanding of it,” Mentzer points out. “We need to consider how can we be good stewards of our data by producing visualizations that are truly accurate and tell the truth. We all need to become better at knowing the tricks that some people use in this industry – and knowing how to see past that.”
The class also grapples with the ethics of high-level visualization in their own work. “You can’t let your bias influence the story,” Kendall explains. “We've learned that the best way to approach it is to explore the data, learn it, and take away a story from the data itself rather than force your opinion or your perspective onto a specific data set.”
“You have to make sure your graphics are telling the real story, not just telling the story you want to tell,” Germaine adds.
“When I take a course with Professor Mentzer, I always know that what I’m learning is going to be relevant and up-to-date.”
By teaching the concepts behind visualization, as well as the software, the data visualization course ensures that students have a foundation that will support them no matter how the tech revolution develops. Technology, Kendall points out, is always evolving and changing. “You have to be able to learn, to adapt and get better at learning new tools,” she says. “You can’t always predict what the next one will be.”
One of the biggest advantages of the course, she says, is that Mentzer shares the students’ enthusiasm for exploring the next big thing. “When I take a course with Professor Mentzer, I always know that what I’m learning is going to be relevant and up-to-date,” she says.