VA Shiva Engages MIT Students on Systems Visualization for Powerful Narratives

How creating a compelling visualization can mean the difference between life and death.

Read this article on VA Shiva’s workshop at MIT Can Talk, about systems visualization, the presentation of data, and how the Challenger disaster might have been prevented.

space shuttle Challenger, Challenger disaster On January 28, 2013, VA Shiva was invited by the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to give a workshop at “MIT Can Talk.” He began his presentation, titled “Visualizing the Narrative,” by engaging the students in a debate of the famous Challenger space shuttle disaster. Twelve hours before the Challenger exploded, engineers were working hard to convince managers that the Challenger should not take off due to the possibility of damage to the O-rings from the low temperatures. Management was unconvinced by the engineers’ presentation, launched the shuttle, and the rest is tragic history.

Some scholars have argued that the disaster could have been avoided if the engineers had been able to present their case more effectively. In this workshop VA Shiva presented a condensed version of his 13-week course on Systems Visualization—which combines his work in design, systems theory, visualization, and complexity.

Dr. Shiva began by sharing with students the fundamentals of storytelling, the basics of visual theory, and the essentials of data integration. The students were asked to split into groups and reenact the hours before the Challenger disaster, creating visualizations that would convince management not to launch the shuttle. The students thoroughly enjoyed the class, and a number of students enrolled in VA Shiva’s full course, offered spring term of 2013 at MIT.

Systems visualization is a new field of visualization which integrates and subsumes existing visualization methodologies and adds to it narrative storytelling, visual metaphors from the field of advertising, and visual design. It also recognizes the importance of complex systems theory, the interconnections of systems of systems, and the need of knowledge representation through ontologies.

Systems visualization provides the viewer of systems visualization the ability to quickly understand the complexity of a system. Unlike other visualization approaches which focus mainly on data representation—such as data visualization, information visualization, flow visualization, scientific visualization, and network visualization—systems visualization seeks to provide a new way to visualize complex systems of systems through an integrative approach.