Mastering the Art (and Science) of Data Visualization

On June 12, the day before graduation, an email was sent to all Chicago Harris students announcing the launch of a new web platform called Harris Insider. The hub for more than a decade’s worth of course evaluations, Harris Insider makes it easy for students to wade through what had once been a jumble of peer data. A course can be viewed through the narrow lens of a single offering or through a broad lens aggregating hundreds of student evaluations over many years.

The platform is remarkably user-friendly and packed with valuable information. Courses are ranked based on how challenging they are, the amount of work required, whether past students found the class useful, as well as many other criteria. Students can browse the overall highest-rated courses using a bubble visualization or look through the “undiscovered gems,” classes that have low enrollments but are highly rated by those who have taken them.

As it turns out, Harris Insider was built by a student who will never benefit from it. Jonathan Giuffrida, MPP’15, walked across the graduation stage the day after the platform was unveiled, and it became his parting gift to the school.

“I wanted to give back to Harris for all that it’s taught me,” Giuffrida says. “It gives students an idea of what they can do with data in a meaningful way.”

In a world where data sets and analyses can become overwhelmingly complicated, Giuffrida has a way of cutting through the noise and getting to the heart of why policy work is so important. He knows that data can help everyone make smarter decisions—from the students entering Harris this fall to policymakers at the highest level of government. 

“When I started working with Jonathan, he brought strong core skills, a passion for policy, and a passion for issues,” says Brett Goldstein, the senior fellow in urban science at Chicago Harris and a fellow at the UChicago Computation Institute’s Urban Center for Computation and Data. “But more than just understanding the policy, technology, and science, he saw the real-world applicability.”

Among many other projects at the intersection of data science and policy, Goldstein heads Plenario, a powerful new open-source platform that puts a trove of government data at users’ fingertips. As Plenario’s project manager, Giuffrida was able to dig into raw data and present it in meaningful ways. He was also able to help users gain access to data that had once been difficult to understand and obtain.

“Jonathan has a skill we need to foster: the ability to take things that are hard, break them down, and make them understandable and applicable,” Goldstein says. “That can’t be taught in a classroom.”

Giuffrida’s insight pairs well with his ability to lead. Peers and Harris staff have noted his talent for drawing people in to listen and learn. Jeremy Edwards, senior associate dean for academic and student affairs, says that talent was on display with Harris Insider.

“Jonathan’s ability to capture the influence of technology and connect the dots is superb,” Edwards says. “We had profound alignment on this from the senior leadership at Harris, and I think that’s a testament to Jonathan’s ability to bring people together.”

A native of Richmond, Virginia, Giuffrida studied Classics as an undergraduate at Princeton. After graduation he worked at a foreign policy nonprofit and a financial consulting firm, where he picked up the technical web development skills that would serve him well on Plenario, Harris Insider, and other projects. He came to Harris to learn how to build on those skills in a way that can benefit society.

“In today’s world, data is gold. We learned that at Harris,” Giuffrida says. “I look at the limits of our knowledge and want to see how we can expand that.”

Oona Bernhardt, MPP’15, saw firsthand what Giuffrida could do to expand the potential of the data before him. As editor in chief of the Chicago Policy Review, Bernhardt worked with Giuffrida to transform the student publication’s approach to data visualization. She says Giuffrida didn’t often take the stage. Instead, he let his work ethic and ability to build collaborations do the talking.

“More than anybody I’ve worked with, Jonathan has a talent for translating between tech-minded people and narrative-minded people,” Bernhardt says. “He saw the data piece as not only an educational tool, but as a way to enhance our work. Our stories were easier to understand and look at, and it helped tell a better story.”

Now Giuffrida is putting his skills to use in the health-care sector. Immediately following graduation he took a position as a community benefits specialist at Presence Health, a large Catholic health system based in Chicago, where he is analyzing the benefit Presence provides to the communities it serves. “I’m excited to apply my training to something that makes a difference in people’s lives,” Giuffrida says. 

—Brian Wallheimer