By: Isabella Vaccaro

University of Miami students Alyssa Fowers and Deb Pang are pursuing their M.F.A.s in Interactive Media, but have already begun making their marks in the data visualization world. Both Fowers and Pang were finalists in the Information is Beautiful Awards and won Computation + Journalism awards for some of their projects done here at UM.

But, what is data visualization? And how did these award-winning projects even come to be?

Alberto Cairo, associate professor of infographics, data visualization, and data journalism in the School of Communication, said that “data visualization is the visual representation of numbers through graphs, charts, maps, etc.”

Fowers and Pang were both students in one of Cairo’s advanced classes, Data Visualization Studio (offered as a special topics course under JMM692/592), when they created their award-winning projects.

“The class consists of developing a large and ambitious data visualization project,” said Cairo. “In the process, students do lots of readings and teach themselves varied tools. The class is intended to mimic what happens in a real workplace, where you need to operate as a self-guided professional, and always keep learning on your own, from books, tutorials, and from peers.”

Since the class assignment is so open-ended, Fowers and Pang drew upon their own backgrounds to create something that interested them. Pang, who used to be a photographer and print designer, decided to analyze one of Anne Sexton’s poems.

“She got digitized versions of all her poems, and she ran them through algorithms that analyzed patterns in the text,” said Cairo. “Then, she visualized those.”

Fowers, on the other hand, had studied psychology and statistics and tackled a visualization of protests in the United States since 2016.

Not only were the students recognized at the Information is Beautiful and Computation + Journalism Awards, but Pang also won a Society for News Design Award. Cairo said that all three of these contests are well-known and highly competitive, noting that he was actually “surprised” that they secured positions as finalists at Information is Beautiful.

“I began my career as a visualization journalist and designer in 1997, and I didn’t win my first major award until 2002, so it took me five years,” said Cairo. “It was a great boost for my career. I can’t imagine how relevant it’ll be for them to win several awards while they’re still students!”