Tag Archives: visual

My Favorite Data Visualization

info graphic of best teams in baseball

I’m a visual person, so it’s no surprise that I like to see data represented visually.  One of my favorite data visualizations is the one above from a blog called Flip Flop Fly Ball.  The blog focuses on baseball, but the website it’s hosted on features lots of other quirky data visualizations including a graph of how many smarties are in the tube and a representation of the relationships between characters in the movie Love Actually.

I’m not really a big fan of baseball, but I do like sports and the discussion and statistics they generate.  This graph crams in a lot of information.  World Series winners from 1995 to 2009 are represented in pink (losers are in purple).  Teams that had a better regular season record than the champions are above and those with a worse record are below (teams with identical records all appear in the same box); National League teams are in yellow; American League teams are in white; and wild card teams are in italics.

If this information were all presented in columns, it would be a bit hard to decipher.  But shifting each column to align the winners puts the data in a new light.  Whenever I think of this site, this is the data visualization I think of first.  I’m not sure if there is a way to apply a similar approach to data generated in a classroom, but I imagine it would give a different perspective on students’ performance from the traditional bell curve.

Take a look around the site and you’ll get lots of different ideas for ways in which to represent data.  You’ll probably also learn a few things about baseball and maybe find something that would get your ESL students talking.


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Processing Data Visualizations

closeup of CPU chip

I’ve seen a lot of interesting data visualizations lately but have struggled to figure out how to visualize my own data.  It seems like there is a vast chasm between creating pie charts in Excel and Hans Rosling’s TED Talks.  The I stumbled upon Processing.

Processing was used to create the genetics simulation I described in an earlier post.  After looking into it some more, I learned that Processing was developed out of a project at MIT’s Media Lab.  It is an object-oriented programming language conceived as a way to sketch out images, animations and interactions with the user.

Examples of of Processing projects include everything from a New York Times data visualization of how articles move through the internet and visually representing data in an annual report to more esoteric and artistic works.

To get started, download the application at http://processing.org and go through some of the tutorials on the site.  There are lots of examples included with the download so you can also open them up and start tweaking and hacking them, if that’s your preferred method of learning.  Once your code is complete, or after you’ve made a minor tweak, click on the play button to open a new window and see it looks.  Once you’ve completed your project, you can export it as an applet, which can be uploaded to a web server, or as an executable file for a Mac, Windows, or Linux computer.

I’ve been through the first half-dozen tutorials and am to the point of making lines and circles dance around.  I can even make the colors and sizes vary based on mouse position.  I have also opened up some of the more advanced examples and started picking away at them to see what I can understand and what I still need to learn more about.  Once I can import data from an external source, it will be really exciting to see the different ways to represent it.

I haven’t had a foreign language learning experience in a while.  I am learning (and re-learning) many valuable lessons as I try to express myself in this new language.  Not surprisingly, I’m finding that I need a balance between instruction (going through the tutorials) and practice / play (experimenting with the code I’m writing or hacking together).  I’m also a bit frustrated by my progress because I can see what can be done by fluent speakers (see examples, above) but am stuck making short, choppy utterances (see my circles and lines, which really aren’t worth sharing.)  I plan to both work my way through the basics (L+1) as well as dabble with some more advanced projects (L+10) to see if I can pull them off.  If not, I’ll know what to learn next.

Fortunately, I have one or two friends who are also learning Processing at the same time.  They are more advanced than me (in programming languages, but I hold the advantage in human languages), but it has been helpful and fun to bounce examples and ideas off of one another.  We plan to begin a wiki to document our progress and questions as they arise — a little like a students notebook where vocabulary and idioms are jotted down so they can be reviewed later.

Watch for more updates as projects get pulled together as well as notes on other ways to visualized data in the near future.

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Visualizing Presidential Speeches with Tag Clouds

President George Washington on Mount Rushmore.

I’ve written about word clouds before, but many more options for visualizing information have become available since my first post about Wordle.  Some newer applications include Tagxedo, Tagul, WordSift, TagCrowd, each of which has slightly different features and ways to customize the look of your tag cloud.

Why are these applications so popular?  A lot can be gleaned from looking at a text in this format.  There are many more complex ways to analyze a text (one of my favorites is Xiaofei Lu’s Synlex, which can analyze a wide range of features from the frequency of structures to the complexity of the text) but word clouds are simple and straightforward.

A great example is the US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud page by Chirag Mehta.  It’s based on Tagline, the Timeline-based Tag Cloud Generator that he developed.  This is actually a series of tag clouds with a slider bar that allows the viewer to scroll though 200 years of presidential speeches.  It’s interesting to see how the most frequent words and themes change over time, something that is very easy to see as you scroll through the tag clouds.

How can students use these tools?  The more complex tools, which allow students to target specific features, might be the best option for analyzing one’s own writing.  On the other hand, tag clouds would be a better option if a student just needs a snapshot of a text.  For example, by feeding a reading assignment into a tag cloud generator, it would be very easy to pick out the most frequent terms and themes prior to reading it — a little like having the text skimmed for you.

Do you use tag clouds and other text analyzers with your students?  Leave a comment to share your tips and ideas.

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Visual Thesaurus

visual thesaurus word cloud

As a visual language learner myself, I really like the way Visual Thesaurus.com works.  Enter a word and synonyms, antonyms, and other related words appear on spokes around a hub.  Lines show relationships between the words (red dotted lines indicate antonyms, gray dotted lines indicate when a word is an attribute of another, is similar to another, is a type of another word, etc.) and definitions, color coded according to part-of-speech, fill a column to the right.

Thesauruses are very useful tools, but displaying results visually makes it even more so.  Other online thesauruses like Thesaurus.com organize search results in a more conventional way that is reminiscent of paper-bound versions: Columns of words are grouped by part-of-speech and meaning.  Why not display these relationships in a way that makes their relationship intuitive and more immediately obvious?  Thesaurus.com is also cluttered with lots of banner advertising and, interestingly, a link to Visual Thesaurus.com at the bottom.

In fact, I had thought I had seen visual thesaurus-style search results somewhere else on Google, but all I’ve been able to find is a now-defunct Google module that seems to have been the basis for Visual Thesaurus.com.  Surely other applications could also benefit from a similarly visual approach, but I don’t know of many.

Visual Thesaurus.com is not free, but keep reading.  A subscription to the online edition is available for $2.95 per month or $19.95 per year while a desktop version is available for $39.95.  I’m not sure I use a thesaurus often enough to justify the expense, though it would be a nice resource to make available to students (group and institutional subscriptions are also available).

In my experience, after the three free searches non-subscribers are allowed, I can close the window and get three more free searches immediately.  Aren’t you glad you kept reading?  Although opening and reopening the search window is inconvenient, it seems to have slaked my appetite for synonyms so far.  You’ll have to decide whether you want to pay for greater convenience, but Visual Thesaurus.com is a useful tool either way.

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Open and Kinect

open kinect

A few days ago, I wrote about how the new Microsoft Kinect has been hacked so that you don’t need an Xbox to use it.  There are now lots of tinkerers and hackers working with this hardware to see what else might be possible.  Although it’s not as easy to see the immediate applications for Kinect in the language classroom as it was for the Wii-based interactive whiteboard, there are obvious parallels.  And this new gaming hardware is more advanced than the Wiimote, which may offer more possibilities.  I’ve posted some examples of some interesting Kinect-based projects below.

How does it work?

Infrared beams, and lots of them.  Here’s how it looks with an infrared / nightvision camera.

Multitouch IWB

Because Kinect can “see” surfaces in 3D, it can be used to create a multitouch interactive whiteboard on multiple surfaces.

Control your browser

Forget your mouse.  Kinect can see the gestures you make in three-dimensional space.  Use gestures to control your browser and more.

Teach it

Teach it to recognize objects.  Obviously, there is a lot more software in use here, but Kinect provides the interface.

Digital puppets

Who wouldn’t want one of these?

Visual camouflage

In 1987, the movie Predator cost $18M.  A significant portion of what was left over after paying Arnold Schwarzenegger was likely spent on the cool alien light-bending camouflage effects.  Just over 20 years later, you can make the same effects on your computer using the $250 Kinect hardware.

3D video

At first glance, this looks like really poor quality video, but stick with it.  Notice the Kinect camera does not move, but with the flick of a mouse, the point of view can be changed as Kinect extrapolates where everything is in the space based on what it can see from where it is.  The black shadows are where Kinect can’t see.

Using 2 Kinects, most of the shadows are filled in.  The effect is like a translation of the real world into a low resolution Second Life-like environment.


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Visualizing Words with Wordle

Word cloud of my blog feed.

Word cloud of my blog feed.

Word clouds and tag clouds are a popular way to visualize words.  The larger the word, the more frequently they appear in a given text.  Wordle makes creating a word cloud simple: Just paste some text into the Wordle interface (or link an RSS feed) and the cloud is generated.  You can even tweak the color palette, font, and orientation of the words.

How can this be used by an ESL / EFL teacher?  I’m still working that out, but it seems like a word cloud must appeal to visual learners.  After pasting in a student’s writing passage, what can we learn?  If some words are very big, maybe she needs to expand the range of vocabulary used.  If very simple words are big, maybe her writing is too simple.  Did any words from the academic word list make it into the cloud?

Of course, other texts can also be analyzed this way.  Take a look at @iVenus‘s wordle based on program for the 2009 CALICO conference.  Gives you a pretty good snapshot of the conference, doesn’t it?

By stepping back and viewing this information visually, we can get an interesting snapshot of the overall text.  Why not turn your students loose and see how they use Wordle?


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