New faculty: Alyxander Burns ’17

The internet is full of charts and graphs. What new faculty Alyx Burns wants to know, though, is how well these visualizations convey information. “Charts and graphs are some of the technologies that we use to help people understand data,” he said.

The internet is full of charts and graphs — some made by news organizations, others by who knows who. What Alyx Burns wants to know, though, is how well these visualizations convey information.

I’m really interested in the ways people interact with technology, and charts and graphs are some of the technologies that we use to help people understand data,” he said. The problem, of course, is that people often assume that data is data — that numbers don’t lie. But data visualizations? Chart makers can play with scale and axes in ways that distort data. Ultimately, what people actually take away from a data visualization can end up being significantly different from what the creator intended to convey.

Burns wants to know what makes a data visualization good. First, of course, you have to define good. “That’s a very hot topic,” he said. For him, a good data visualization is one that helps people understand something new about the world. His definition of good can be significantly different from the definition many media organizations use, which is often how many times a visualization is clicked on.

Burns’ interest in data visualization stems from his lifelong interest in art. Really beautiful charts and graphs have always been something he loves, though these days he’s more focused on studying how people interact with these things than how eye-popping they are. A Mount Holyoke alum from the class of 2017, he went on to get a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Returning to Mount Holyoke was an easy choice for Burns. For one thing, he knew he wanted to be at a teaching-focused institution. "I love the environment of small liberal arts colleges and the opportunity to get to know students,” he said. But also, the roster of classes he’d get to teach was appealing. This fall he’ll get to teach one of his favorite classes: Introduction to Computer Science.

“I think it’s a really interesting group of students to teach to. You have first-year students who might be really excited about computer science and students in their third or fourth years just discovering how computer science fits in with things they already love.” And, in classes like these, he gets a chance to show the computer-science-ambivalent just how interesting — and even beautiful — computer science, and the data visualizations computer scientists make, can be.

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