Shining the Spotlight

Shining the Spotlight

Robert S Laramee

In this edition we meet Robert S. Laramee, Associate Professor in Computer Science at Swansea University who specialises in data visualisation for extremely large datasets - a first for the UK ! Robert has also worked on the Bloodhound SCC, visualising aerodynamic flow with state-of-the-art visualisation techniques.

What is your role?

I’m an Associate Professor at Swansea University in the Computer Science Department where I teach data visualisation and software engineering. The other facet to my role is that I specialise in data visualisation (or flow visualisation) which involves information visualisation, scientific visualisation and visual analytics for extremely large datasets. As soon as data volume gets beyond the size of fitting into a spreadsheet, it gets more complicated and difficult to generate advanced visualisations. No one in the UK currently focuses on flow visualisation but it has tremendous potential given the business value now attributed to data. 

What do you enjoy most about your role?

It would definitely be the research that I find the most enjoyable. My job involves coming up with new and innovative ways to visualise data, this is my favourite aspect of the job. Its a rapidly evolving field where you have to constantly keep up with state-of-the-art for data visualisation. The starting point is reading research papers and the other side is talking to engineers to get more insight about their needs and challenges.

One problem that everyone is facing right now is that we collect too much data. The biggest issue is deriving knowledge from data, which has become too big and too complicated to make sense of. The challenge that I help with is how to gain insight from data by using visualisation as an approach to understand what it is that the data represents. Collecting is relatively simple, it is the next stage in extracting something of value from an extremely large dataset which is the hurdle.

I’ve also been very lucky to be involved in the Bloodhound SCC Jet and Rocket Propelled Land Vehicle, where the Edmunds15bloodhoundstreamsurfacerequirement was to visualise aerodynamics flow with state-of-the-art visualisation techniques. The standard visualisation techniques that the engineers use are very limited in their capabilities and we were able to show them the behaviour of the air flow in ways that were previously not possible.

This image shows colour mapping of the Coefficient of Pressure (CP), which enables the engineer to review the pressure distribution across the SCC vehicle. From this, the engineer can assess if the pressure distribution may cause instability during motion. This visualisation of the CFD data at a top speed of Mach 1.3, uses an automatic algorithm to locate an area of flow, which curves up over the nose of the car. This location is used to seed a stream surface in upstream and downstream directions. The surface colour is mapped to the CP where red is high pressure and blue is low pressure relative to the free stream pressure, which is green. 

Stream SurfaceWhat is your background?

I studied for my BSc in Physics at the University of Massachusetts, US and spent a year as an exchange student in Hull, UK which I really enjoyed and was pivotal to my development. After finishing my MSc in Computer Science at The University of New Hampshire, I was given the opportunity to study for a PhD degree in Computer Science in Vienna, Austria. I’ve been offered jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, but after my PhD decided to continue my adventure and work in the UK. I’ve been employed by Swansea University since 2006.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on three different projects, the first two are information visualisation projects and the third one is scientific visualisation. Information visualisation is data that has no associated space and time coordinates - so an example might be call centre data. Scientific visualisation is where the data is much more complex and is bound to time and space and represents a physical phenomena that occurs in nature.

The first project is with QPC (www.qpc.com) to visualise text data where we are trying to extract knowledge and trends from call centre data. We’ve created some novel visualisations that have never been possible which is helping to explain the behaviour, trends and responses from the customer base. It benefits QPC in the form of refining business processes to be more efficient and increasing customer satisfaction levels.

The second project is also text visualisation where we are collaborating with Grid-Tools (www.grid-tools.com) to identify problems with software requirements specifications which arise mostly from decision logic and wording. When you design software you draft a requirements specification which addresses challenges in design changes or decisions made as a result of design changes. We’ve helped to visualise the decision logic and identify problem areas that will improve the quality of requirements specifications.

The third project is where we are working on visualising molecular dynamic simulations - a scientific visualisation where we study interactions of atoms and molecules between lipids and proteins.

The point with these projects is that we are creating visualisations which is helping organisations to understand their data in ways they currently cannot.

What are you looking forward to in your field? Any predictions?

What I’m really looking forward to is the growing recognition of data visualisation which is increasing in importance as a subject, field and discipline. The majority of focus is on data collection with less emphasis on the information knowledge and extraction process. Collection doesn’t solve the problem. When I started in data visualisation, no one had ever heard of it before and it was a niche and specialised area but now its a rapidly evolving area. My prediction is that people will eventually understand that collecting data on its own will not give you answers. Visualising and analysing data will. I’m also looking forward to the day when technology is more advanced and it makes the job of visualising data more easier.

If you got stranded on a desert island and were granted three items, what would they be and why?

I would probably still need my office to communicate with the rest of the world! Thinking practically maybe a farmer so I could eat and a carpenter which I think would be handy!

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