Seeing Science

Data visualization expert Lee-Arng Chang helps Ohio State researchers communicate their findings

Lee-Arng Chang sits in a red chair in the Research Commons lobby. He is holding a laptop which is displaying multiple graphs and charts on a dashboard.

Lee-Arng Chang, Data Visualization Specialist at the Research Commons, knows the importance of a first impression.

“Visualizations are oftentimes the one opportunity to summarize key findings and insights in an eye-catching, but at the same time meaningful and impactful way to an audience,” says Chang, who is also quick to point out that data visualization, also known as data viz, is about much more than creating a quick bar graph.

“Data visualization work often involves taking a step back to look at the overall picture of a project, dataset, or question and getting a better understanding of what is being asked and putting all the components together that make up a visualization,” he says. “There are so many aspects to data visualization that come before the visualization part, from the dataset finding to data cleaning - which can take a lot of time - to the other aspects of data prep and viz tools.”

“Even during the visualization work itself, questions arise including selecting a viz type, making a choice of colors, adding context like annotations or highlighting certain parts of a viz, etc.,” says Chang. “Many times, graphic design elements are what distinguish a good viz from a great viz.”

Luckily, researchers at The Ohio State University don’t have to approach data viz alone. At the Research Commons, Chang offers one-on-one data viz consultations and larger group workshops to help scholars present their data in visually engaging ways.

Concept (left) and final visualization (right) for a research project by Daniel Peart in the Department of Anthropology

“Consultations can cover a variety of questions and topics, but I most commonly see constituents looking for feedback or guidance as to how to proceed in visualizing their datasets or improving upon visualizations they've already created,” says Chang. “Teaching data viz workshops can vary from presentations where I do most of the talking and show and tell to hands-on, practical workshops on using data viz tools.”

One researcher who has taken advantage of Chang’s data viz expertise is Caitlyn Chambers, a graduate student in the Department of Educational Studies.

“I reached out to the Research Commons to receive insight on a project very special to me: creating a tool for Black youth to use to increase social skills and racial identity,” says Chambers. “To increase acceptability among the elementary students I was working with, I realized I needed to have the knowledge to create engaging and culturally relevant visual material such as a manual and book. To make this happen, I knew I would need to know how to manipulate Adobe products to create original material that would be child-friendly and engaging.”

“The biggest challenge I was facing was knowing how I wanted the final project to look, but not having any technical knowledge to make it happen,” she says. “I came to a standstill with the project and questioned how I could make the vision I had in my head come true in my limited timeframe.”

Chambers was put in touch with Chang, and the two worked together to make her vision a reality.

“Lee-Arng helped give me the fundamental knowledge of the Adobe services offered to students to create the imagery for my manuals and eventual social stories book,” says Chambers. “After giving him the overall picture, he was able to help me manipulate Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to make the project my own. He even sent me a video of how to do it step by step if I stumbled after my appointment.”

Working with Lee-Arng has enabled me to not only use the Adobe services offered to students, but has also given me the motivation to learn about other Adobe services and experiment with the tools he taught me how to use to create materials for my projects and even help others with similar issues,” she says. “I would not have been prepared to carry out my dissertation or other projects without his help.”

Chambers encourages other researchers at Ohio State to take advantage of the expertise available at the Research Commons.

“Reach out! It is the easiest thing you can do,” she says. “The data visualization team will help you learn the tools offered and assist in any way they can afterward if you have any questions.”

Chang looks forward to continuing his data viz consultations and workshops, emphasizing the importance of modern data viz approaches.

 “Data viz is growing really rapidly as more and more people are realizing the impact it has in all areas of research and the professional world,” he says. “We're seeing it with internal company dashboards for decision-making, the impact it has had on journalism, the news, and even the way it has contributed to misinformation, underscoring the importance of data viz in data literacy.”

For more information about the data viz services available through University Libraries, visit the Research Commons Website.