After having lunch in the café and building where most SAS product developers work (if you’ve been to SAS headquarters: building R), I ran into Senior User Experience Design Manager Rajiv Ramarajan and Senior User Experience Designer Riley Benson. They told me about a project they worked on for the Visual Analytics Science and Technology (VAST) Challenge last year – and how it was voted “Best use of off-the-shelf software” by their peers. I knew immediately I wanted to share their story with the community. Here are the details:
Tell me about the Visual Analytics Science and Technology (VAST) Challenge – what is it and how does SAS participate?
Rajiv: The annual VAST Challenge is part of the VAST (Visual Analytics Science and Technology) conference which together with InfoVis and SciVis form the larger VIS (as in visualization) conference. Its goal is to advance the field of visual analytics through competition. The contest is open to everyone, and other individuals/teams from SAS have participated in it over the years. We submitted an entry before to the 2013 challenge, which focused on visualization design. Principal Product Tester Robert Allison and Principal Software Developer Nascif Abousalh-Neto are others who have submitted entries in previous years.
The challenge is underwritten by the premier conference in Visual Analytics, represented by experts from academics, industry and government. It is open-ended and rewards original methods and presentations.
How do you recruit the SAS project team? It seems like you need varied skills to compile an entry.
Rajiv: Typically, the challenge consists of creative application of data transformation, visualization, and analytical tasks. So ideally, a team would comprise of experts in each of these areas. Since SAS doesn’t have a formal effort around this challenge, we look for volunteers who are interested in it, are willing to give the extra time, and have some of the related skills. Last year a good team came together around it, though we could have used more time.
Principal Development Tester Steve Clark helped us stage the data. Nascif and Principal Software Developer Paul Vezzetti helped with the analysis portion. Senior Systems Administrator Matt Horn assisted in creating the video submission. Riley led most of the individual pieces of the entry including all of the Python programming.
Riley, what’s it like working on something like this? You still have your “day job” … what drives you to take on this side project?
Riley: The challenge simulates a current and relevant problem. So it is compelling. You have to be very interested in, even passionate about, the visual analytic problem because it takes a lot of time to work on a solution and then put together the required video, paper, and poster entries. As you suggest, this work is in addition to our work responsibilities, but is a good opportunity to step into the role of an end user for the tools you work on every day.
What was the 2015 challenge about and what did the team submit?
Riley: The 2015 challenge was to analyze movement and communication data of visitors and staff at the fictitious Dino Fun World amusement park over a three-day weekend. The scenario incorporated a vandalism committed at a celebrity event in the park, and challenged entries to identify the perpetrator/s, provide insights on how people move and communicate in the park, describe how patterns change and evolve over time, and suggest ways to improve the park based on these findings.
The challenge had three parts: Mini Challenge 1 involved movement data, Mini Challenge 2 added communications data, and the Grand Challenge required analyzing both datasets. Together, the two data sets had almost 30 million rows of data.
We submitted an entry to Mini Challenge 1, which required only the use of the movement data. However, the challenge also allowed us to analyze communication data for the entry and so we did. In our solution, we utilized SAS Visual Analytics and custom tools such as PlotDevice, csvkit, and Python to analyze and visualize the data. Our process focused on collaborative data discovery and the application of analytics procedures. We often moved the data back and forth between custom Python scripts and SAS Visual Analytics and shared our findings with the rest of the team using Slack for our collaboration.
Can we see the entry you presented at VIS 2015?
Rajiv: Sure! In addition to the official entry form and required video (see below), we submitted a short paper and a poster to the event (see attached).
We were thrilled that our poster and use of SAS Visual Analytics was voted “Best use of off-the-shelf software” by peers.
Woah, congratulations Riley and Rajiv! This is great stuff, and it must feel good to be recognized for your hard work. Thanks for sharing!
SAS Visual Analytics Community members – did you enter the VAST Challenge? Tell us about your work or thoughts on the SAS entry, in the comments below.