Rachel Binx image

Bringing data visualization down to Earth

If Delight lives at the intersection of design, technology and business, then Rachel Binx may be its human manifestation. Self-described as a “data visualizer, art historian, mathematician and GIF empress,” Rachel’s day job is at NASA JPL, where she’s building data visualization tools for space robots like MSL, aka, the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Mars Curiosity Rover tweets to NASA New Horizons during Pluto flyby

In addition to tweeting about the weather (cold and dry) and giving shoutouts to other space robots, the Curiosity Rover sends back telemetry data, remote measurements that let spacecraft operators know how everything is working. The tools Rachel is building make it easier for engineers to analyze and use that data.

Rachel also runs three small business ventures, all in what she describes as the “recreational ecommerce” space. Monochōme is a site for designing custom clothing and accessories decorated with map tiles. Meshu lets you enter cities or location data to create travel-inspired jewelry. And Gifpop uses lenticular printing to turn animated gifs into cards that come to life when you move them.

The different facets of Rachel’s work may seem to be worlds apart, but she says the challenge in both cases is to visualize data in a way that people will love. She’ll bring insights from both worlds to the main stage at Delight 2015*. Here’s a sneak peek into her thinking.

What is the nature of the work you’re doing at NASA JPL?

Rachel: Data visualization is sort of a newish thing at JPL. A couple of years ago people realized that seeing a graph of their data was more useful than just seeing a string of numbers. The thing I’m working on right now is basically all of the tools for viewing telemetry data, which is data for the spacecraft. They’re sort of slow and clunky, and the queries take a long time. So we’re building an application that makes all of that easier to use. A lot of the spacecraft operator’s job is hopping between different types of data and looking for anomalies and then trying to trace back what caused those anomalies. So any help that we can give them for speeding that process along, enabling them to either pull the data up or see when a trend goes awry, is really useful for their work.

Cassini Saturn Mission

Cassini Spacecraft – photo courtesy of NASA JPL

Was doing data visualization at JPL a dream job?

Rachel: Before this came up I was kind of getting skeptical about the visualization community in general, because I have some real concerns about aestheticizing data. I think that’s okay for a marketing project. If the point of the project is to say, “Wow, this data set or this company’s data set sure is cool,” then sure, go nuts with it. But if you’re trying to build a tool that people can use and find value from, I think you have to stick to simpler representations, and you have to do a lot more UX work than the data viz community often does.

If I make something too complex for people to understand, then they aren’t going to respond to it, they aren’t going to want it. It’s a lesson in removing too many decorations or too many interactions and simplifying down to the things that people actually respond to.

How do you align data visualization to the way the engineers are accustomed to working?

Rachel: I think there’s this trend in data visualization to make these fanciful representations and there’s definitely an art to a lot of data visualization. The thing that’s interesting about this work at JPL is that there is basically no margin for making something that looks pretty but isn’t understandable. People need to be able to sit down and use these tools and not get distracted by the aesthetics of what we’re doing. I think from a pop visualization standpoint it’s kind of mundane on some level, but that’s what goes into making tools that are useful for people versus data visualization that’s just a decoration.

What is the role of delight at JPL? Do you talk about good experiences and does that vocabulary work into the culture?

Rachel: It’s been a very interesting challenge for me. I think in general there’s a skepticism about designers and design among the engineers. We were originally doing a bunch of research on this and we said, “We’re going to build you this cool new tool.” And a couple of them would say, “Okay I know what I want, so build this.” And we said, “No, that’s actually our job to figure out what to build after we do user research.” And the response was kind of like, “Are you saying that you know what I want more than I know what I want?” It was also hard because we’re designers coming in who haven’t been operating spacecrafts for years and years, and there’s a knowledge gap. So I think it took a while to build credibility.

Once you start saying, “Ok, well, here’s this thing that pulls up a graph really quickly of your data and you can zoom into it and see all the values and the individual points and do some analysis on it.” And at that point they’re like, “Oh, whoa, I don’t have anything else that I can do this with.” Once you build that rapport you can say, “No really, I’m here to deliver this usable software, and you’re going to like it.”

Your day job is so left-brain, but your other projects are on the more right-brain, artsy edge of the data. Do you approach them differently?

Rachel: I fundamentally see them as the same. You’re taking a data set and then you’re filtering it down to a data set small enough that people can really understand it and finding a way to represent it in a way that people respond to. That’s been the fun thing about this project. I’m sort of ragging on it by calling it a better line chart, but in reality this application is the only one at JPL that is trying to bring in all these different forms of telemetry data and building interactions that let people overlay them on top of and push between one another. And it’s a very interesting design problem to find new ways for people to approach this that are not just a table of values.

How to delight a data scientist

Rachel: Whether creating tools for space robots or fashion for fellow travelers, Rachel says getting feedback from the people who are actually using what you make is the most wonderful thing in the world. “I get to talk to people and interview them at the moments when they’re using the tools I built, and they say, ‘Oh my gosh this would have taken me hours with the old tools and now I can just do it in a couple minutes.’ There’s nothing better than that.”

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About Rachel Binx

Rachel Binx is a design technologist, currently working at NASA’s JPL to create data visualizations to aid in spacecraft operation. In addition to her visualization work, Rachel has also started three companies (Meshu, Gifpop, and Monochōme), each of which creates custom objects based on customers’ personal data. When not sitting in front of a computer, Rachel enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with parrots.