Dr. Collins at the Research Excellence Awards Speakers Series

On March 23 Dr. Christopher Collins presented a talk Understanding Culture and Society Through Visual Text Analytics at the UOIT Research Excellence Awards Speakers Series, as a recipient of the 2016 award.  The talk is available to watch online.

Our ability to communicate through language is often considered the hallmark of humanity. Through language data, we leave traces of our individual personalities and our culture online. In this talk Dr. Collins discussed how the vialab investigates language data to provide insights into culture and society. From the secret language of passwords, to the public broadcast of social media, the vialab team has created interactive visualizations for exploring and revealing patterns in language data. How do people feel about my product? What are the main themes in the news today? These are examples of the questions people ask about large scale text data. Through harnessing the power of language data, we have detected rumors on Twitter, discovered car parts contributing to accidents, and analyzed the written history of the court system. In addition to an overview of our research projects, this talk presented some of the technologies and techniques we use to achieve these results and discussed the open challenges and opportunities for the future of linguistic data as a lens on culture and society.

The introduction of Dr. Collins as read by Vice President Research, Innovation, and International Dr. Michael Owen, appears below:

Dr. Christopher Collins is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Science and holds a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Linguistic Information Visualization. His cutting edge research program combines information visualization and human-computer interaction with natural language processing to address the challenges of linguistic information management and the problems with information overload. Using a trans-disciplinary approach crossing computer graphics, design, and linguistics, Dr. Collins provides new analytic tools to data-intensive fields as diverse as legal studies and bioinformatics. His designs integrate gesture and touch interaction to enable analytic processes that are both intuitive and powerful.

Dr. Collins’ visualization designs are informed by deep investigation into real-world linguistic data problems. These new techniques are widely cited and highly impactful, as demonstrated by his work having more than one thousand citations and the pick up of his research by the scientific and popular media. An example of the breadth of Dr. Collins’ contributions can be seen in his recent investigation of the “secret language of passwords”. His team published two papers which deconstruct millions of real passwords to reveal the semantic patterns encoded within them. A password guessing algorithm based on their findings surpassed the best available cracking techniques on many measures. The research has garnered media attention including a major article by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ian Urbina at the New York Times Magazine.

Dr. Collins’ creativity in research and scholarship is exemplified through his innovative application of a variety of methodologies, including grounding ethnographic studies of how people work with language data as well as qualitative and quantitative evaluations of resulting visualization designs. In his research, he relies on information visualization, natural language processing, and the exciting interactive power of natural user interfaces and large multi-touch displays. Dr. Collins is the only researcher in Canada with expertise in all three of these areas.

Dr. Collins’ research has attracted significant support from national granting agencies and industry partners. In his five years as a professor at UOIT, he has received $1.4 million in direct research funding as the sole investigator and additional support through his participation on joint projects and National Centres of Excellence. Dr. Collins’ research promises to contribute innovations that will enhance our ability to leverage the tsunami of big data to drive positive change in business, policy-making, and education. His current NSERC Discovery Grant introduces mixed-initiative visual text analytics, whereby computer systems provide just-in-time and contextually appropriate guidance to analysts.  This proposed direction was considered so highly that his application was awarded a rare “Discovery Accelerator Supplement”, an additional grant recognizing outstanding research potential.  Collins leads the Visualization for Information Analysis lab in the Faculty of Science, where he supervises undergraduate and graduate students focusing on information visualization, with special attention on text and document analysis. The VIA lab maintains collaborations with academic colleagues at UOIT and beyond, as well as industrial collaborations. Positions in the VIA lab are highly sought after and he receives dozens of requests from prospective students each year. It is clear that our students are as grateful to have Dr. Collins at UOIT as we are.