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Picture this: better decisions through data visualization


This visualization represents the number of takeoffs at U.S. airports between 1998 and 2010.

You can visualize world peace, whirled peas and even the World Series but can you visualize data?

That’s the question raised by the Data Visualization Student Challenge, a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) competition that invited college students to turn reams of dry numbers into visually compelling graphics that could help drive decisions about transportation and infrastructure improvements.

“Visualization allows the data to tell a story,” said Pat Hu, associate administrator and director of DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. “It can be as simple as a pie chart or bar graph but we wanted to go beyond that.”

To that end, DOT invited students to tackle a transportation issue and show how visualization can uncover actionable information that can help guide decision makers.

“Let’s say you have serious congestion issues and want to add lanes or a [bypass] loop,” said Hu. “These are huge transportation decisions. Data visualization can help you identify the benefits, costs and implications of the different options.”

Consider some of the 18 entries submitted to the challenge:

  • Aviation in the U.S., 1998-2010: Analyzing 14 years of flight data, the graphic uses colored circles of various sizes to compare cities’ gains and losses in service. With more flights being routed through fewer hubs, notes the submission, “Delays can increase even though there are fewer airplanes in the sky.”
  • Mid-Air Collisions: The study looked at 10 years of flight data to show the roles flight phase and altitude play in mid-air collisions. According to the submission, the results could provide support for decisions regarding new air traffic control systems.
  • Economic Development through Infrastructure: The study looked at the long-term impact of the Southwest extension of Denver’s light-rail system. Using ridership and employment data, the team created a map showing the relationship between station locations and job creation.

For Hu, the challenge is both an effort to get transportation issues on students’ “radar screens” and to tap into their familiarity and expertise with graphic communication.

“There’s a lot of talent in the next generation,” she said. “They’re very smart and they have a lot of good ideas but many aren’t exposed to transportation issues. We wanted to reach out and show them that there are some interesting problems than can be solved in this area.”

The winning submissions will be announced on Dec. 16.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.