“Decoding Origins” Project seeks to trace origins of enslaved peoples of Africa

Drawings of faces detailing markings
Wednesday, February 13, 2019

OCAD U’s Professor Martha Ladly and colleague Katrina Keefer of Trent University are using visual analytics to help reconstruct the lives of individuals who were victims of the mid-Atlantic slave trade. 

Their project, Decoding Origins: Creating a Visual Language of Marks, is based on the rich history of applying permanent body marks, such as scarification and tattoos, to represent individual’s membership in African kin groups and local societies. The Project seeks to trace origins of enslaved peoples of Africa, and to address the obliteration of identities for enslaved individuals, which is one of the lasting legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The researchers received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Working in archives in the UK, the US and Sierra Leone, the team is engaged in data gathering, digitization, interpretation, and visualization, using both historical and contemporary data and imagery, cross referenced with records from the 1880s Registers of Liberated Africans.

The researchers are working with these endangered records collected from the archives of Freetown, Sierra Leone, along with open source data, using research analysis tools employed in the Digital Humanities. Ladly’s team is adapting technologies such as Optical Character Recognition, Machine Learning, and eventually, Artificial Neural Networks to build an interlinking relational database, which will assist in analysis, visualization, and reconstruction of events in the lives of African individuals who were enslaved.

This work may assist scholars, and eventually members of the public, to identify enslaved individuals who were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean, and potentially to trace their origins back to homelands in Africa, in an attempt to uncover identities lost in the mid-Atlantic slave trade.

Project collaborators and researchers are a multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic team of designers, technologists and artists, including graduate research assistants Kartikay Chadha, Georgina Yeboah and Maria Yala (OCAD University) and historians Eric Lehman and Michael McGill (Trent University), working with scholars of the Mid-Atlantic Slave Trade, including collaborators  Paul Lovejoy (York University, Tubman Institute), Dean Rehberger (Michigan State University), Mohammed Salau (University of Mississippi), and Abubakar Babajo Sani (Umaru Musa Yar'adua University, Katsina).

The project is featured on CBC News.

Photos submitted by Katrina Keefer

Three people seated in front of a screen
Cursive handwriting on an old register

The Communicative Value of Data Visualizations

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 11:45am

Professor Isabel Meireilles has been invited to speak at the Fields Institute workshop "Statistical Inference, Learning and Models in Data Science", held from September 24-27, 2018 at The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences.

Data visualizations are ubiquitous and critically important to generating new knowledge in several fields today. They often play a central role in different stages of the research process, from exploring data with visual analytical methods to communicating findings with visual displays aimed at both experts and general audiences. In this talk Meirelles will focus on the latter, visualizations used to communicate complex information. In this communicative role, visualizations are visual (re)presentations of results, requiring presentation skills originated in well-established practices, such as graphic design and journalism. Through case studies, Meirelles will examine cognitive and perceptual constraints, visual strategies and tradeoffs, and critically reflect on common challenges of the medium.

Interested participants may watch this event through the Fields Institute Video Streaming service, FieldsLive, found here: https://www.fields.utoronto.ca/live


Venue & Address: 
Rm. 230, The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. 222 College Street, Second Floor, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 3J1.
No cost

Dr. Ajaz Hussain

Dr. Ajaz Hussain holds the position of ‘Post-Doctoral Research Fellow’ at OCAD University, supporting the President’s Office. He is playing a leadership role in the Visual Analytics Lab (VAL) by having research affiliation with Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) CREATE Program in Data Analytics and Visualization (CREATE DAV) program in Canada. Dr.

iCity: Urban Informatics for Sustainable Metropolitan Growth

The iCity urban transport project focuses on the development of data analytics transportation and transit planning tools that could increase individual and community participation in the development, planning, and design of transportation systems interfaces.

This ongoing project is a collaboration between multiple institutions, led by the University of Toronto, and includes OCAD University, University of Waterloo, and IBM Canada. OCAD's role is the third theme of this multi-year project and focuses on developing a visualization and visual analytics tools that can interpret the vast amount of quantitative data gathered from the socio-technical and technological systems that are embedded in urban life. 

The OCAD U iCity team employed a user-centered process for design, exploring visualization techniques based on user interaction with urban transportation applications. A taxonomy was developed that considered user tasks, level of engagement, and type of data input or output. Researchers also interviewed experts from within the urban transportation sector to identify their visualization needs and challenges. This project has delivered many open source research projects including Betaville, StoryFacets, Compara, and more. The current stage of the project for OCAD University and the visualization theme works directly with the recent development of the Toronto Waterfront in partnership with Waterfront TO, ESRI, and Sidewalk Labs.

As an interactive system resource, iCity sets out the conditions for individuals and groups to highlight their needs/wants/values and to particpate in strategic planning opportunities, facilitating a more democratic and participatory urban design process.

Additional resources:
Read "Analyzing student travel patterns with augmented data visualizations"[1], available through OCAD's Open Research Repository, here.
iCity at the University of Toronto



1. Skelton, Carl and Juneja, Manpreet Kaur and Dunne, Cody and Bowes, Jeremy and Szigeti, Steve and Zheng, Minsheng and Gordon, Marcus A. and Diamond, Sara (2017) Analyzing student travel patterns with augmented data visualizations. In: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems, Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 10-14 Jun 2017. Available at http://openresearch.ocadu.ca/id/eprint/1868/

 2D map with interactive 3D infographics representing StudentMoveTO data generated using Betaville
Friday, June 15, 2018 - 10:15am
Lab Member: 
Jeremy Bowes
Marcus A. Gordon
Dr. Steve Szigeti
Dr. Sara Diamond

Canada Council Visualization: Training for visual analysis of complicated data

The Canada Council for the Arts engaged researchers from OCAD’s Visual Analytics Lab to meet a need for the visual analysis of complicated data from various industries, including the Canada Council’s Open Data set, the CADAC data set, and Parliamentary appropriation tables.

Researchers met with Canada Council staff to identify key challenges and gain an understanding of the user group that the visual analytics approach would first serve. They defined co-dependencies of this user group and, working closely with Canada Council employees, developed an appropriate approach to visualizing the various data sets.

A key component of this collaboration was the training of Canada Council employees in the methodologies and applications of data visualization.

This project culminated in the creation of a web-based interface and methods to guide users in exploring and gaining valuable information from the visual representations of grant allocation data.

See the data visualization tool in action on the Canada Council's website.


Canada Council for the Arts dashboard
Canada Council for the Arts dashboard
Canada Council for the Arts Logo
Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - 12:15pm
Lab Member: 
Dr. Sara Diamond
Dr. Ana Jofre
Afrooz Samaei
Marcus A. Gordon

ViewerCentric: Visualization engineering towards a tool for media discoverability

This ongoing project sees researchers from OCAD’s Visual Analytics Lab working closely with Magnify Digital. It applies data analytics strategies and visualization best practices to the development of ViewerCentric, a visualization dashboard that allows users in the film, television, and media distribution sectors to understand complex data sets.

The data sets include streaming social media data and static data related to consumer habits. Visualization of this complex data helps content creators to better understand their audiences, increasing their discoverability.

A key component of this research is finding ways of combining multiple data sets and presenting the results in an actionable way. The ViewerCentric interface provides its users with the means to develop effective and measurable, online marketing strategies; find and assess audiences, identify opportune channels for reaching these, and evaluate messaging, funding and advertising opportunities and reports that can be submitted to funders, broadcasters, sponsors, and stakeholders.

Researchers will extend the system to other cultural content that has or could have a digital component or tag such as visual art, live entertainment, music and publishing - supporting its discoverability and user analytics. Currently editors and independent producers rely on hunches and creative vision without understanding the varied demographic differences of their audiences into account, while advertising agencies and brands primarily consider data. The objective is to help cultural industries and not-for-profits monetize content and balance personalization, market drivers and editorial direction.



We acknowledge the support of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
Cette recherche a été financée par le Conseil de recherches en sciences naturelles et en génie du Canada (CRSNG).

Friday, May 18, 2018 - 1:30pm
Lab Member: 
Sana Shepko
Jad Rabbaa
Afrooz Samaei
Marcus A. Gordon
Dr. Steve Szigeti
Dr. Sara Diamond

Taste Graph: A narrative visualization tool for massive media data

Traditional newspapers are moving dramatically to digital publishing and data analytics in order to better understand their users’ behaviors, build their subscriber base, maintain their online readers, determine advertising placements. The goal is to deepen and diversify their revenue streams. For this purpose, VAL's Taste Graph research analyzes and synthesis the Globe and Mail data about their subscribers and their web-browsing habits, indicating connections between tastes.

Discovering affinities across different categories is a promising method of segmenting the audience within the context of media planning and potential advertising campaigns. For example, if someone shops for organic vegetables they might be more likely to shop to organic tea. Also, if data indicates close affinities between the categories of organic clothes and organic foods, it is reasonable that a purchaser of both organic vegetable and tea packs will be interested in shopping for an organic cotton shirt if they are provided with a choice to pick a shirt. As well, the people within the taste category  ‘organic’ could also be interested in certain types of drinks, types of shoes, and a sports travel lifestyle.

To establish similar taste correlations within Globe and Mail data, we follow a “narrative approach” that helps tell stories with the data by providing a smooth transition from raw data to communicating through data visualization. The tool we are developing supports the Globe and Mail marketing teams. Firstly, it provides an easy way to filter multiple sources of data and find relationships. Secondly, it shows patterns regarding Globe and Mail audience tastes in customized narrative visualizations. From these, the marketing teams could gain holistic knowledge about their audience tastes and see the impact of certain taste correlations or become aware of some hidden insights of interest regarding relationships between tastes. Thirdly, it allows Globe and Mail people to remain continuously knowledgeable about their business performance measures.

Our organization of the design space involves two types of narrative tactics: visual and structural. For visual tactics, we deploy several visual mechanisms that assist and facilitate the narrative. We chose a bubble chart, and grouped bar chart to illustrate, evaluate, and compare tastes, scores and engagement levels. Colour is then applied to different categories of advertisements to indicate degrees of divergence in tastes. We depend on navigation strategies as a structural tactic to assist the narrative. For example, we arrange the paths the viewer might take through the visualizations, and we make the visualizations interactive by including filtering, selecting, searching, and navigating of advertisement data. These strategies are tested and refined with Globe and Mail design and marketing teams and will then be audience tested.

Our visualization tool, in general, respects secure web application standards. Our goal is to provide the Globe and Mail with intuitive reports about the overall and manifold correlations of tastes of their readership and advertising audiences. Our proposed tool handles the complexity of massive and heterogeneous marketing data records and translates it into a communicative interface.

See a preview of TasteGraph from the IEEE Computer Society Visualization and Graphics Technical Committee VIS2018 here.

Click here to see Ahmad Karawash presenting this research at the Ontario OAR Conference, May 16 2018.
Click here to view this project on SOSCIP's page.

This research was presented by Dr. Ahmad Karawash, Postdoctoral Fellow and Team Lead, and Sana Shepko at the Ontario Centres of Excellence annual Discovery conference on May 1st, 2018 (see below).

Image of interactive tool, showing a graphical comparison of universe vs. specific category's engagement with taste groups
Photograph of Ahmad Karawash and Sana Shepko attending Discovery 2018 conference to present research.
Friday, May 18, 2018 - 10:45am
Lab Member: 
Dr. Sara Diamond
Dr. Ahmad Karawash
Marcus A. Gordon
Jad Rabbaa
Sana Shepko
Afrooz Samaei
Lan-Xi Dong
Dr. Greice C. Mariano
Hugh Ritchie
Ana Jofre
Stephen Keller
Dr. Steve Szigeti

Secretary of Cabinet visits OCAD U

Steve Orsini with Sara Diamond and Ana Jofre looking at a table
Friday, June 2, 2017

On Friday, June 2, OCAD University hosted Steve Orsini, Ontario’s Secretary of the Cabinet, Head of the Public Service and Clerk of the Executive Council.

During the visit, OCAD University senior administrators, faculty and staff heard about Mr. Orsini’s efforts to transform the Ontario Public Service (OPS), including through digital and open government.

President Sara Diamond highlighted the specialized and unique art, design and research produced by OCAD U students and faculty, and its alignment with the Government of Ontario’s priorities.

Several researchers and lab directors, including Jutta Treviranus, Dr. Nabil Harfoush, Dr. Greg Singer and Dr. Ana Jofre presented their work, demonstrating OCAD U’s leadership in creativity and innovation, with expertise in the areas of design, visual analytics, strategic foresight and innovation and inclusive design.

The tour concluded with a visit to the Imagination Catalyst, OCAD University’s business incubator.


Two seated men  point to monitor
Two men standing
Two men shaking hands

Mayor Tory announces OCAD U partnership on open data

Mayor John Tory with Sara Diamond, Isabel Meirelles and Patricio Davila
The Visual Analytics Team
Friday, September 9, 2016 - 4:00am


On September 8, Mayor John Tory announced a partnership with OCAD University’s Visual Analytics Lab and an ambitious open data plan as part of the City’s ongoing improvements to the recreation registration process.

Fall registration opens on September 10 and is the busiest sign-up period of the year. More than 102,000 families and 16,000 individuals registered over the four days of fall registration in 2015.

To improve the experience this year, server capacity has been increased by 25 per cent, the website has clearer navigation and planning tools, additional customer service hours were added.

"City staff work hard to accommodate the huge demand for our city’s popular recreation programs," said Mayor Tory. "But our system needs to improve and I want the smart and creative people of Toronto to help us find solutions. These open data initiatives are part of our commitment to think differently about how to make registration and recreation program planning better."

Mayor Tory was joined at the announcement in the Visual Analytics Lab at OCAD University by Councillor James Pasternak (Ward 10 York Centre) Chair of the Community Development and Recreation Committee; Dr. Sara Diamond, President and Vice-Chancellor of OCAD U; Janie Romoff, General Manager of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation.

“Our faculty and students were excited to participate in a project that will improve residents’ experience of the city’s tremendous recreation programs,” said Dr. Diamond. “This is a great demonstration of how design helps us understand and make use of data, to improve social engagement in our community.”

Under the leadership of faculty members Dr. Patricio Davila and Isabel Meirelles, a group of OCAD U students has analyzed historic recreation data to help understand the demands on the system. The data set has also been released publicly, along with current program registration data that will be updated daily. This will allow third-party developers to create new tools to help residents with recreation registration planning prior to the registration process.

The City is in the process of replacing its current registration system, which is at the end of its life and is not meeting the needs of Toronto’s nearly 200,000 registered program users or City staff. While the system is not expected to be replaced until the end of 2017, the City has committed to ongoing improvements to the current process with more underway for December registration.