Michelle Borkin head shot

Statement on #Vis4Good

Data visualizations are ubiquitous in our society and used for essential tasks from communication to decision making. However the creation and effective use of visualizations is a specialized skill set that requires experience and training to take advantage of it to the most optimal level. The people and organizations in the world who are on the front lines of making the world a better place including community organizations, non-profit organizations, schools and educational initiatives, and social advocates commonly lack the data analysis and visualization skills necessary to effectively analyze data for impactful strategic planning, decision making, and communication. Although these organizations and causes could hire experts that have these skills or pay for training for their volunteers, budgets are usually tight or non-existent thus making this option typically unattainable.

I believe that data visualization should and can make a positive effect on the world, and one concrete means to enable this is through the synergy of visualization experts with already active organizations, movements, and causes. From the perspective of Academia, I further advocate that this synergy is more attainable than one might think through the integration of volunteerism and conscience “social good” choices into one’s research, teaching, and service, or combos thereof. In my presentation and panel discussion I will share some of my own experiences as tangible examples of how an academic can integrate this synergy and effect positive change.

For example, one method to enable this synergy of visualization in support of social good causes is through Service-Learning, an experiential learning model in which classroom learning objectives are aligned with community service to meet both educational and community goals. Many positive effects of Service-Learning on students have been demonstrated including the development of a sense of meaning and purpose to their academic studies, communication skills, leadership skills, and an increased sense of community. Through Service-Learning, data science and visualization students can exercise their newly acquired skills and provide valuable (free) insights for non-profit organizations. In my courses, I have partnered students for their final projects using the “Design Study Lite” Methodology https://intervis-projects.ccs.neu.edu/project/DSLM with local non-profit organizations so they can experience a real full design study while simultaneously helping visualize and analyze data for their community partner.

If everyone in the VIS community takes one action, no matter how small, to use their unique expertise and skillset to make a positive difference in the world than collectively as a community we can create enormous positive change.


Michelle Borkin works on the development of novel visualization techniques and tools to enable new insights and discoveries in data. Her research spans visualization and human-computer interaction with interests across disciplines including astronomy and physics, medical imaging, network visualization, perception and cognition, and accessibility. Michelle Borkin is an Assistant Professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Physics from Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2014, as well as an M.S. in Applied Physics and a B.A. in Astronomy & Physics from Harvard University. She was previously a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow, a National Defense Science and Engineering graduate fellow, and a TED fellow. She is also recipient of a CHI 2020 Best Paper Award for the publication “Design Study ‘Lite’ Methodology: Expediting Design Studies and Enabling the Synergy of Visualization Pedagogy and Social Good”.