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Faculty of Science researchers collaborate with Canada's energy regulator on data visualization project

InnoVis research group turns National Energy Board data into clear, publicly accessible online tools
May 4, 2017
Researchers from the interdisciplinary Innovations in Visualization and Data Experience research groups, both part of the Interactions Laboratory. In a pilot project, the research team created an interactive visualization for the National Energy Board. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Researchers from the interdisciplinary Innovations in Visualization and Data Experience research groups, both part of the Interactions Laboratory. In a pilot project, the research team created an interactive visualization for the National Energy Board. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Every Canadian has a stake in helping to shape the country’s energy systems. But how do we make sense of the ever-increasing and complex information about issues such as pipeline safety, environmental impacts and economic benefits?

In a unique effort, a group of University of Calgary researchers is working with Canada’s energy regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB), on a three-year initiative to begin to turn the NEB’s vast array of energy data into clear, publicly accessible, online visual tools.

“Data visualization is a way of realizing the potential of data by helping people as individuals understand what’s there, and empowering them so they can use that data and make their own decisions,” says project co-principal investigator Sheelagh Carpendale, professor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Computer Science and Canada Research Chair in Information Visualization.

Carpendale leads the Innovations in Visualization (InnoVis) interdisciplinary research group, part of the Interactions Laboratory (iLab). InnoVis includes computer scientists, designers, artists and engineers whose work encompasses information visualization, human-computer interaction and interactive art.

InnoVis members, in a pilot project, created an interactive visualization, called Exploring Canada’s Energy Future, for the NEB’s public website. It enables anyone to easily explore data on energy production and consumption trends and forecast them into the future.

For this initial project, the NEB received the Contribution to Innovation in the Regulatory Field award from the Community of Federal Regulators, a partnership of federal departments and agencies.

Enabling people to see patterns in data

The NEB’s responsibilities include regulating about 72,000 kilometres of interprovincial and international pipelines, including contentious projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to the West Coast and the Energy East pipeline from Alberta to the East Coast.

Historically, the NEB has presented its energy data to the public in the form of raw data — essentially tables and Excel spreadsheets which may be hard to understand and are used mainly by energy experts.

Data visualization is a way to help the general public understand the significance of data by placing it in a visual context.

Carpendale says by representing the data spatially and visually, it enables people to see patterns, trends and correlations that might go undetected in raw data, and “retrieve the expected and discover the unexpected.”

“The more all of this data can be available and transparent, the more the public can be aware, see what’s happening and make their contribution to energy project decisions,” says Jo Vermeulen, an InnoVis postdoctoral researcher working on the project.

“With the pilot project you clearly see the true impact of visualizations: taking complex information and making it accessible, removing barriers to information,” says Katherine Murphy, project manager of the NEB’s Data Visualization Initiative. “We are looking forward to all the work ahead with InnoVis and, at the same time, learning from their expertise to be able to continue the work ourselves into the future.”

Entire project’s work is freely available

The project involves a small team from the university’s iLab working closely and intensely with the NEB’s data experts to understand the data and translate it into potential visual designs and prototype software.

Presenting data visualization on the NEB’s website needs to be much more than efficient, Carpendale notes. “It’s got to actually be appealing, to communicate, to tell a story and be intriguing. It’s got to be part of the pleasure in people’s lives or they won’t spend time with it.”

Other members of the project team include co-principal investigator and assistant computer science professor Wesley Willett (who leads the Data Experience research group), postdoctoral researcher Søren Knudsen, PhD student Lindsay MacDonald and project manager Claudia Maurer. MacDonald, Vermeulen and Carpendale worked on the initial pilot project, together with former postdoc Charles Perin.

The entire three-year initiative is “open data” and “open source,” which Carpendale strongly supports. It means all the designs and other information created in this project can be used freely by libraries, other regulators and third parties.