Research Profile: Colin Ware: Visualizing Patterns in the Data

Research Profile: Colin Ware: Visualizing Patterns in the Data

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Colin WareWhat do ocean currents, sea lions, and Twitter data have in common?

“Patterns,” replies Colin Ware, a professor of computer science and Director of the Data Visualization Research Lab, a part of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire.  

Ware’s current research, which covers a range of subjects, from tracking sea lions and humpback whales to creating more effective methods of mapping ocean and wind currents, has a unifying theme: finding patterns in the data. From patterns in the weather, to patterns in mammal’s feeding practices, Ware relies on his expertise in perception to guide his work.

It was perception that ultimately led Ware to bring together his early work in psychology with his interests in art. In his pursuit of a doctorate in experimental psychology, he authored “Information Visualization: Perception for Design,” a book showcasing how his interests in perception and art intersect.  

“Visualization offers thinking tools to see patterns in data,” he says. “How can you best represent data so that people can understand what’s in it and see patterns?”

Within the Data Visualization Research Lab, Ware works to make data relating to the oceans easy to grasp. He currently is working on flow visualization, charting how ocean currents flow or how the winds move in the atmosphere. Most people hand-draw diagrams of the interconnections of the ocean’s currents, but Ware strives to understand some of the complexities while still making it accessible to those researching it. “The way they [currently] show wind patterns is very inefficient and ineffective,” says Ware. “So you can’t see the swelling patterns going on in the atmosphere very well, and we are working on ways to show this much better.” Since oceans hold a lot more heat than the atmosphere, understanding how the oceans behave is critical to understanding climate.  

His work with tagged Steller sea lions is another example of the significance of finding patterns in the data. During the summer of 2013, Ware traveled to Vancouver, Canada and used a new type of tag called Open Tag to learn more about the energetics of sea lions’ food gathering, or how much the animals have to work to get food. During speed trials near Vancouver, tagged, trained sea lions swam alongside a boat, increasing and decreasing their speed as the boat did. The tags allowed the researchers to measure the sea lions’ energy expenditure during these trials. The current focus of this collaborative project with Andrew Trites and David Rosen of the University of British Columbia is to use this energetics data to evaluate the “foraging theory,” which is getting food for the least amount of work.  

Ware also applies the method of tagging to research of the feeding behavior of humpback whales. Ware emphasizes the importance of teamwork on these projects, crediting David Wiley of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with being in charge of this study that has been underway since 2004, though Ware has taken the lead on some aspects.

Even with all his ongoing projects, Ware is always looking for other opportunities to apply his data visualization expertise. His latest work involves visualizing Twitter data. 

“There are [approximately] 600,000,000 tweets a day,” Ware says, “and special tools are needed to pull out certain data in order to look for patterns in the data. For example, if companies want to find patterns in trends or subjects, visualization tools would aid them in their research. Ultimately,” Ware concludes, “it’s about providing tools for understanding data.”

By Cynthia Plascencia. This story first appeared on the UNH Research website.