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Françoise Breton – Technoscope - 24/02/2012

Helping ordinary citizens understand public data

Jean-Daniel Fekete, leader of the Aviz team and specialised in the visualisation of large datasets Jean-Daniel Fekete - © Inria

Three Frenchmen have been designated to receive a Google Research Award 2011. Jean-Daniel Fekete, leader of the Aviz team and specialised in the visualisation of large datasets, is among the laureates, with a project at the heart of access to public data.

What does this prize mean for you?

Jean-Daniel Fekete : The Google Research Award is a bit special to the extent it is intended to fund research that interests Google and is awarded after evaluating a project. The project my team proposed concerns the visualisation of large datasets and assessing the techniques used to do this , a subject that interests Google in the context of its open data approach: Google Public Data. This service proposes all sorts of data that can be downloaded, as well as visualisation systems to explore it more easily. Consequently we have a lot of common interests and we have already discussed similar topics. In a way this prize formally recognises our cooperation and the interest Google has in the team's work.

Could you tell us more about the aim of your project?

J.-D.F.  : We have observed that, paradoxically, web users visiting sites rich in data spend very little time browsing them. The question is: how can we make them spend enough time on a site to understand the data? This is an important issue at a time when access to public data should allow citizens to form an opinion, for example concerning distribution of the national budget. In this project we start with the hypothesis that for this data to really be accessible, that is to say comprehensible, access alone is not enough. We must also present it in a way that allows the citizen to appropriate it , i.e. understand the data, compare it to various alternatives, etc.
This is very interesting on a scientific level because up until now visualisation only addressed people with extremely specific professional questions, in science or economics for example. A web user who visits a site doesn't necessarily have a specific question at first. This means we have to find the right ways to present data and the methods to attract and encourage them to stay on the site.
Google is very interested in generalising this approach, which would allow it to develop the site as a framework for other specialised applications.

Which applications are you targeting?

J.-D.F.  : We are working on applications that are of interest to the general public. Our first application will concern the French presidential elections in 2012 . Then we will work on the national budget, followed by pollution, etc. The approach consists in creating a site that makes the data as accessible and attractive as possible with the help of Jérémie Boy, a student in design and graphic arts, who is starting a thesis on this project. Then this will allow us to test different "engagement" techniques by studying their impact on site use.

What sort of information are you providing for the elections?

J.-D.F. : We are starting with the fact that people need contextualised information . For example, we used surveys to identify the type of question French people are asking about the elections. One of these concerns the candidates' backgrounds, which led us to work on their life profiles. But we also propose an active approach . For example, the web user can indicate the points he feels are essential, like healthcare or unemployment, in order to obtain the positions of the different candidates on these issues or to find out which candidate is closest to his personal views. The Aviz website,, will be accessible at the end of February.

Keywords: Interactive visualisation Saclay - Île-de-France Jean-Daniel Fekete Aviz research team