FABulous CHI 2016

At the CHI 2016 conference this week, there were a slew of presentations on the topic of fabrication. First of course I have to highlight our own Megan Hofmann who presented our paper, Helping Handsa study of participatory design of assistive technology that highlights the role of rapid prototyping techniques and 3D printing. In addition, Andrew Spielberg (MIT & Disney Intern) presented RapID (best), a joint project with Disney Research Pittsburgh which explores the use of RFID tags as a platform for rapidly prototyping interactive physical devices by leveraging probabilistic modeling to support rapid recognition of tag coverage and motion.

I was really excited by the breadth and depth of the interest at CHI in fabrication, which went far beyond these two papers. Although I only attended by robot (perhaps a topic for another blog post), attending got me to comb through the proceedings looking for things to go to — and there were far more than I could possibly find time for! Several papers looked qualitatively at the experiences and abilities of novices, from Hudson’s paper on newcomers to 3D printing to Booth’s paper on problems end users face constructing working circuits (video; couldn’t find a pdf) to Bennett’s study of e-NABLE hand users and identity.

There were a number of innovative technology papers, including Ramaker’s Rube Goldbergesque RetroFab, Groeger’s HotFlex (which supports post-processing at relatively low temperatures), and Peng’s incremental printing while modifying. These papers fill two full sessions (I have only listed about half).   Other interesting and relevant presentations (not from this group) included a slew of fabrication papers, a study of end user programming of physical interfaces, and studies of assistive technology use including the e-NABLE community.

Two final papers I have to call out because they are so beautiful: Kazi’s Chronofab (look at the video) and a study in patience, Efrat’s Hybrid Bricolage for designing hand-smocked artifacts (video, again can’t find the paper online).

The Data Pipeline

I’ve been teaching a course on using data for three years now, and it feels ‘finished’ enough that it is perhaps worth writing about. When I began the course, I had the goal of (1) exploring the human side of data, meaning the ways in which what we know about people impact our ability to make, process, interpret, and use data (2) make the course accessible to a broad variety of people (not just programmers) and (3) organize the course around modules that would produce nice portfolio items. The result is the course at data.cmubi.org.  While it has evolved over the years, it’s always included at least a few beginner programmers, and the projects have been interesting opportunities for students to explore issues like interactive machine learning, data visualization, and topic areas they care a great deal about.

A big emphasis on the course is on data cleaning –understanding deeply the flaws in your data, from bias in data collection to missing values in data files. Many (hopefully most) of the projects below have significant sections documenting their sources and efforts / decision making around this topic.

Another big emphasis in the course is on understanding what the data will be used for, and by whom. Tied to this, we talk extensively about intelligibility in machine learning, the importance of narrative in visualization (and visualization in general), and the importance of defining the question you are answering.

Here are some of the highlights over the last three years:

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Bus bunching is a phenomenon that can impact bus wait times. One of my 2016 students has been collecting data and extensively studying the phenomenon. His final project in the class drew on this data set and explores visual representations of the phenomenon.


Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.56.20 PMYelp data is always an area of interest. In 2014 … In 2015 students explored which state has the best pizza :). In 2016, the ‘Bon Yinzers‘ developed a wonderful series of visualizations of factors that affect popularity of Pittsburgh restaurants. They uncovered some interesting phenomena such as the unexpectedly off-cycle checkin times of the most active Yelp users in Pittsburgh.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.00.13 PMSan Francisco Crime Alert explores the likelihood of different types of  Crime in different SF area neighborhoods. Their prediction algorithm gives you a way to explore the prevelance of major and minor crime in terms of time of year, time of day, and location.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.03.50 PMIn 2015, a group collected and analyzed data set of tweets by potential ISIS supporters, with the goal of ultimately engaging others in helping to label such data and understand how ISIS supporter accounts differ from other accounts with sometimes similar tweets (e.g. news accounts or bloggers).

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.12.00 PMOften, a goal of class students is more about policy than about end users. In 2015 Healt$care explores the quality of healthcare and its relationship to dollars spent across the U.S. in a highly visual fashion.


Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.17.31 PMIn 2014, a group asked what jobs are popular in what parts of the US?. Again a combination of data visualization and prediction supports exploration of the question. A similar approach was explored by a 2014 group that collected data about movie piracy and its relationship to DVD release strategies.

Sadly, not all of the older projects still work (web standards change so fast!). I wish I could provide links to work such as the Reddit AMA visualization pictured here.

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