Penn State-Drexel team wins visual analytics competition

October 20, 2008

A team of Penn State researchers representing the North-East Visualization and Analytics Center (NEVAC) was one of three winners in the 2008 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Visual Analytics Science and Technology Grand Challenge. They developed and applied a set of geographically-enhanced visual analytics tools to a prototypical homeland security information analysis problem.

The team was coordinated by Prasenjit Mitra, assistant professor of information sciences and technology and Chris Weaver, research associate with Penn State's GeoVISTA Center, now an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma. Don Pellegrino, a Ph.D. student at Drexel University, played a major role as lead author for the integration report. In addition to Mitra, Weaver and Pellegrino, the researchers included five other researchers from Penn State and one from Drexel.

The team integrated raw data, results and findings from four mini-challenges to address the overall problem. The Penn State-Drexel NEVAC team was the only university team to qualify. NEVAC is one of five regional centers collaborating with the National Visualization and Analytics Center, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program operated by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The researchers recognized the need for a computer-supported collaborative work environment, and team members took individual responsibility for the four data sets that made up separate mini-challenges. The four mini-challenges were the only clues the team had to the hypothetical threat hidden in the synthetic challenge data sets, which included phone records, RFID tag-based movement in a building before and after an explosion, geo-temporal records of boat interdictions off the U.S. coast, and Wikipedia edit data and history. Grand Challenge participants were expected to integrate the results of the analysis of all mini-challenges to understand the overall situation among events, actors, and their communications.

"Our specific work at Penn State emphasizes 'geovisual analytics,' " said Alan MacEachren, professor of geography, director of the GeoVISTA Center at Penn State and the principal investigator of NEVAC. MacEachren defines geovisual analytics as "the science of analytical reasoning and decision-making with geospatial information, facilitated by interactive visual interfaces, computational methods, and knowledge construction, representation, and management strategies."

"Most of the visualizations were built on Improvise, a visualization toolkit designed and implemented by Chris Weaver", added Mitra, "The team built novel analytic components and coupled them with the Improvise front-end to successfully answer the questions and identify hidden patterns in the data. Such an approach helped us identify insights into the data that would not have been possible either by visualization or by analytic techniques in isolation."

Because they are one of the three Grand Challenge winners, the Penn State-Drexel NEVAC team has the opportunity, along with Oculus Information Inc. and Palantir Technologies, to participate in a live challenge session during VisWeek 2008, Oct. 19-24, in Columbus, Ohio.

"We'll have four hours to work with a professional information analyst to address a new problem with the help of the methods and tools we have developed," MacEachren said.
Chi-Chun Pan, research assistant in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Penn State, assisted Mitra in detecting social networks from the Wiki-edit data. This mini-challenge entry was especially cited.

Other members of the team were Anthony Robinson, research associate; Ian Turton, senior research associate; Michael Stryker, graduate student; Junyan Luo, post-doctoral scholar now at Michigan State University, and Chaomei Chen, Drexel.

Penn State

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