writes code and visualizes data
in Montréal, Québec, Canada.
Data visualization is a passion and hobby of mine, and many of my personal projects revolve around using visualization techniques to explore data.
Data visualization uses algorithms to create images from data so humans can understand and respond to that data more effectively. Artificial intelligence development is the quest for algorithms that can “understand” and respond to data the same was as a human can – or better. It might be tempting to think that the relationship between the two is that to the extent that AI development succeeds, datavis will become irrelevant. After all, will we need a speedometer to visualize how fast a car is going when it’s driving itself? Perhaps in some distant future, it might be the case that we delegate so much to AI systems that we lose the desire to understand the world for ourselves, but we are far from that dystopia today. As it stands, despite the name, AI development is still very much a human endeavour and AI developers make heavy use of data visualization, and on the other hand, AI techniques have the potential to transform how data visualization is done.
One of the easiest ways to start visualizing data is to turn a table into a heatmap: every cell gets a colour, the higher the number the brighter the colour. Unfortunately, this is often a fairly unrewarding exercise, yielding graphics that look like plaid or tartan fabric. Part of the problem is that the rows and columns of a dataset often have no natural ordering, such as time, and are instead shown in alphabetical order, or else the dataset is sorted by one of the rows or columns, rather than in an order which makes patterns pop out visually. My goal in this article is to clearly demonstrate this problem and show that there exist neat solutions to this problem using a set of techniques collectively called seriation. I’ll do this by automatically reordering the rows and columns in the following noisy-looking heatmap to make the underlying pattern very clear.
Many a bored long-haul flight passenger has asked themselves why the flight path on the map is curved, and if it wouldn’t be faster to just fly straight there. In fact, airlines try very hard to keep their flight paths as straight as possible. It’s just that the rectangular world maps we are accustomed to looking at project the 3-dimensional earth onto a 2-dimensional surface such that any long straight line not directly along the equator or perpendicular to it will appear curved. Making the equator special in this way makes some sense as a default way to draw maps, because of the way the earth spins on its axis, but we can just as easily choose any other straight line path for this treatment, and doing so gives us an interesting perspective on the world and on maps.
I have recently read some though-provoking articles that discussed data visualization by analogy to photography. I really like this analogy, both from a process perspective – photography and data visualization – and a people perspective – photographers and data visualizers. Anyone who takes a picture with a camera is a photographer in that moment, and anyone who makes a chart, diagram or map based on data is a data visualizer while they’re doing that. Both photographers and data visualizers produce images of information emanating from their subjects, to make a point, to record, to inform, to delight. Photographers choose the lighting of their subject and framing of their shots, then use cameras to capture their image. Data visualizers choose the data they use about their subject and the mapping of data attributes to visual attributes, then use algorithms to produce graphics. Both can post-process their images to exert even finer control over their products.
The 2017 edition of my interactive map of Montreal election results is now available, and I’m so pleased about the results it shows! In 2013 I made a map a couple of months after the election and it was considered so unusual it was talked about on the radio. But times have changed: this time the data was available within days, and within hours of that, news outlets had similar maps on their websites. I still like mine better though because it shows data from all 103 races, rather than just the mayoralty. The 2013 map is still around, for reference.
My friend Mark Weiss recently started a podcast called Using Reflection and I was pleased to be interviewed as a guest on his 6th episode. We had a great chat about datavis and engineering ethics, among other topics.
I recently did a guest lecture (in French!) at the Université de Montréal in the context of the École d’été en Architecture de l’information (Summer program for Information Architecture).
Visualizing datasets as circle-and-arrow networks or graphs is a popular and easy way to make attention-grabbing graphics. As the number of data points grows, however, these graphics become crowded and marginally useful. Dimensionality-reduction algorithms such as t-SNE represent a different approach to visualizing the relationships between large numbers of data points, which in certain cases can produce graphics which do not suffer from the same types of problems as graph-visualization approaches. In this talk I compare and contrast the two approaches and give pointers to those who wish to try them out.
For the latest in my series of maps of the results of the 2013 Montreal municipal election, I’ve produced a pair of graduated symbol maps, representing the results as a pie charts overlaid on a base map. It’s interesting to compare this type of visualization to my previous efforts: the dot map, the choropleth, and the ternary plot.
I had the pleasure of visiting with many members of my wife’s family this summer, some of whom are genealogy enthusiasts. I made a pair of visualizations of the data they had collected: one in the run-up to a family reunion and one to find my way around the large family we visited in Saskatchewan.
I’ve always been curious to see what kinds of patterns would be visible if one tried to visualize the distribution of house numbers (the number in a street address) across a city like Montreal. This week I took some time to learn enough about the OpenStreetMap system to gather and plot the data.
I recently organized and MC’ed the fifth Visualization Montreal meetup, and I think it was a great success! The concept was to have a series of 7-minutes-max flash presentations from Montrealers where each one would show off a single visualization project. The rules were: no slides, no tools, just one publicly available data visualization. We had 12 presenters including me, with a good mix of types of data and visualizations. Below is the list of visualizations that were presented, and you can find photos of the event here.
The visualization I presented at VisMtl 5 was entitled “Canadian Members of Parliament in 2012 by Province, Party, Age & Gender” and is shown above.
For part of my presentation at Montreal Python, I made an interactive map of the various sub-sections of the website Reddit (called subreddits). You can take a look at the interactive version or see a static annotated one above. The interactive one includes basic info on how I made it and full details are in the presentation. I got some nice comments in the /r/DataIsBeautiful subreddit post
Data visualization, by definition, involves making a two- or three-dimensional picture of data, so when the data being visualized inherently has many more dimensions than two or three, a big component of data visualization is dimensionality reduction. Dimensionality reduction is also often the first step in a big-data machine-learning pipeline, because most machine-learning algorithms suffer from the Curse of Dimensionality: more dimensions in the input means you need exponentially more training data to create a good model. Datacratic’s products operate on billions of data points (big data) in tens of thousands of dimensions (big problem), and in this post, we show off a proof of concept for interactively visualizing this kind of data in a browser, in 3D (of course, the images on the screen are two-dimensional but we use interactivity, motion and perspective to evoke a third dimension).
Recently I made some maps of the 2013 Montreal municipal elections, showing voting results down to the ballot-box level, using data from the Montreal Open Data Portal. It turns out, however, that not all of the ballot boxes in that data set are associated with a small geographical area like the ones shown in my by-ballot-box map, and furthermore, those ballot boxes have very different numbering schemes than the ones that do match up with small block-sized areas, numbers like 901 and 601 and 001A instead of small numbers from 1 to 100ish, like the others.
So what gives? These results appear to be from the early-voting polls, which, given that there are fewer of them, cover a larger area per ballot box. In this post I take a look at how leaving this data out of my maps skews the results I present.
The Montreal municipal elections were just over two months ago but I played with the election results dataset over the holidays anyways as an excuse to play with a type of data I don’t normally have much to do with: geographical data. Without further ado, here is the map I made, and this post explains a bit about the process.
In the Montreal mayoral election last November, nearly 85% of the vote went to one of the top three candidates. A pie chart is a simple way to show the breakdown of votes between candidates for the whole election, say, but what if you wanted to look at the vote breakdown for each of the 52 electoral districts? 52 pie charts is kind of hard to look at and discern any sort of pattern. It turns out that if you only want to look at the top three candidates, you can use a ternary plot to good effect, like I did in the image above. There’s an interactive version as well which helps make the link between the ternary plot and the map via mouse-overs.
I was inspired by some cool "dot map" visualization projects around the internet (North American Census Dotmap, Toronto Visible Minorities Dot Map) to create a similar visualization of the results for the recent Montreal municipal election. I leveraged data from the Montreal Open Data portal to create the map above. There are coloured dots for (almost) each vote for the mayoralty for the top three candidates, randomly located within the catchment area for the polling booth it came from. What I like about this map is that it shows the results in all their messiness rather than neatly colour-coding entire neighbourhoods like a choropleth map would. People live and vote in arbitrary-looking clusters, not in neat blocks!
There was a municipal election here in Montreal on November 3, and I had the opportunity to help build an election results dashboard to be projected on the big screen at the election-night party for the political party I support: Projet Montréal. The dashboard is still up with final results. I worked with Nicolas Marchildon, who had put together a similar system for the 2009 election.
If you work with data and you don't know what a pivot table is, I encourage you to learn about them, because they are very useful for quick'n'dirty data analysis. My web-based implementation is a decent learning tool but there are other, much-better implementations, such as in Microsoft Excel (although since Office 2003 they've made some changes that were not for the better) and AquaDataStudio.
I posted this on Hacker News and got some nice comments!
This is the machine-readable back of my new nerdy QR-code business card!
On Saturday I attended hackMTL, a one-day hackfest/competition. The ground rules called for creating an app using at least one of a list of API's. The one that caught my eye was the DokDok API (now Context.io), which basically gives you programatic read access to your GMail inbox via HTTP/JSON. Since June or so I've been doing more and more visualization of data that I work with (first at Bell then at Recoset) so I figured I'd see if I could make an app that could make a neat picture of my social network, as it's represented in my inbox. I didn't quite finish an "app" per se during hackMTL but I did manage to make a pretty picture (above). The code is up on GitHub, and basically it's a Python script that creates a JSON file which is rendered using Protovis. The circles/graph nodes represent email addresses (aka people) and the links between nodes indicate that the two parties were on the same GMail thread.
I always have trouble remembering what famous people were alive when,and more importantly, who was alive during, before or after who’s life.It’s easy enough to remember which philosopher came before which otherphilosopher or which scientist came after which scientist, but oftenharder to remember which scientist came before which philosopher etc. SoI built a PHP script to automatically lay out an HTML timeline to helpkeep all this stuff in context. I then decided to learn how to use XSLand rebuilt my little experiment using that. Click here with a modern browser to open the timeline.