In Memoriam: Matt Ward '77, Professor of Computer Science and Data Visualization Pioneer

October 14, 2014

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Matt Ward '77, a longtime professor of computer science at WPI and a pioneer in the field of data visualization, died at the age of 59 on Oct. 13, 2014. He had been a member of the WPI faculty for 28 years.

Ward helped establish the field of multivariate visualization and visual analytics, which involves translating complex data sets into visual representations that make it easier to appreciate and comprehend the stories behind numbers. Scientists use visualization techniques to convey their results, confirm hypotheses, and extract meaning from their data.

He received the first of a number of awards from the National Science Foundation in the late 1990s (with co-principal investigator and longtime collaborator Elke Rundensteiner, professor of computer science) to address the fact that common visualization tools were inadequate for processing very large data sets—those with millions or even tens of millions of records or hundreds of dimensions. From that point on, developing tools for dealing with such staggering volumes of data became his specialty, and his work represented some of the earliest contributions within visualization to the field known today as Big Data.

One of Ward's crowning achievements was a program he called XmdvTool, a highly flexible analysis and visualization system that could help users make sense of data from areas as diverse as finance, astronomy, and fire science. "I have yet to find a field where I couldn't use it," Ward recently told the Daily Herd.

The software takes in vast troves of numbers and then, with a simple and intuitive interface, lets the user pose questions about possible relationships and associations that might lie hidden in the data. Behind the screen, the program integrates a number of multivariate data visualization techniques, including scatterplot matrices, star glyphs, and dimensional stacking, and incorporates a suite of interactive tools that can filter the data and modify the views.

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The results emerge in colorful patterns of lines, fields, and shapes that inform while they also please the eye. "Visualization draws a lot from art," Ward once said. "You want to make things aesthetically pleasing so that people won't mind looking at them."

The first version of XmdvTool was released in a paper titled "XmdvTool: Integrating Multiple Methods for Visualizing Multivariate Data" at the 1994 Conference on Visualization. An open-source tool, the software evolved with input from users and new research by Ward, Rundensteiner, and their students. New versions were released regularly; the latest iteration, version 8.0, was announced in October 2010. Over those years, the program was employed by hundreds of users, in a wide range of fields, all around the world.

In a 2007 interview for WPI's research magazine, Ward traced his interest in data visualization to the math puzzles his father gave him to solve when he was growing up and to his own tendency to think visually. "I look at problems and try to come up with visual analogies," he said. Ward explained that his aim was to create tools that were "simple, elegant, and useful," the article noted. "In contexts as dissimilar as homeland security and genetic sequencing, the eye-popping punch of his displays makes mountains of unwieldy data a pleasure to behold."

"Matt has been and will always remain a true inspiration for me as an amazing visionary in visual analytics who made cutting-edge research look easy and so much fun," Elke Rundensteiner said. "I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have had the chance to work closely with Matt for so many precious years. He is sorely missed, not only as "research spouse" (his words, not mine), but also as a true friend."

Ward graduated from WPI in 1977 with a degree in computer science. He went on to earn an MS and a PhD in computer science at the University of Connecticut, where his master's thesis and PhD dissertation both focused on data visualization. In 1980 he went to work as a member of the technical staff in the Robotics and Computer Systems Research Laboratory at AT&T Bell Labs in Holmdel, N.J. Working on independent research in image processing and computer architecture, he designed a system that could automatically convert sequential computer programs into parallel executable, intercommunicating execution streams and experimented with using dynamic scene analysis to guide a robot arm.

He left Bell Labs in 1984 to take a position as a pattern recognition specialist for a start-up known as Skantek Corporation, where he helped develop image processing and pattern recognition software for a fiber optic–based, large-scale document scanner. He joined the WPI faculty as an assistant professor of computer science in 1986, was promoted to associate professor in 1990, and rose to the rank of full professor in 2000.

Ward's work in visualization, computer graphics, bioinformatics, visual languages, and scientific databases resulted in dozens of publications in refereed journals that have garnered more than 4,000 citations. He also authored numerous technical reports and made presentations at a long list of conferences. In 2010 he delivered the keynote address at the European Visualization Conference. He was the co-author of the textbook Interactive Data Visualization: Foundations, Techniques, and Applications (A.K. Peters Ltd., 2010).

In recent years, Ward played a pivotal role in the development of WPI's Bioinformatics and Computational Biology program and served as the program's first director. When it was launched in 2011, the interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate program, taught by faculty from the departments of Biology and Biotechnology, Computer Science, and Mathematical Sciences, was the only such program in New England to offer a combined BS/MS in the field. Ward also helped develop the recently inaugurated master's program in data science.

During the 1998-99 academic year, Ward co-founded a student project center in Melbourne, the second largest city in Australia. He advised dozens of IQPs there over the years on topics that included disabilities, fire protection, education, and the environment.

In the recent Daily Herd story, Ward noted that many of the colleagues who had started out in visualization when he did have moved on to other fields. He stayed with this singular focus, he said, because he never lost his fascination with the challenge of turning numbers into meaningful pictures. His perseverance and his significant lifetime achievements recently earned him two honors, one from his WPI colleagues and the other from his professional peers.

In April, he received the Senior Faculty Researcher Award from the WPI chapter of Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society. He was nominated by Craig Wills, head of the Computer Science Department. Wills told the Daily Herd, "Matt is one of small set of researchers who have been actively publishing in information visualization for more than 20 years."

On September 30, Ward learned that he had received the IEEE VPG Software System Award for his contributions to multivariate visualization and visual analytics through the development and continual refinement of XmdvTool. The award was presented during a celebration of his two decades of visualization research held in the Higgins House Great Hall. The hall was filled with colleagues, the many students he mentored over a span of more than 25 years, and his friends from across campus, who took the opportunity to wish Matt Ward well and to express their appreciation for a career—and a life—of fulfillment and accomplishment.

He leaves his wife, Meredyth, sons Nathan and Andrew, and Nathan's sons Andrew and Nathan. Calling hours are scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 19, from 3 to 6 p.m., at Mercadante Funeral Home and Chapel at 370 Plantation Street in Worcester. The funeral is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Monday, October 20, in All Saints Episcopal Church, 10 Irving Street, in Worcester. From 4 to 6 p.m. on Monday a musical commemoration will take place in Higgins House on the WPI campus.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Matt's name to the Worcester County Food Bank, 474 Boston Turnpike, Shrewsbury, MA 01545, or to the student travel fund of the WPI Bioinformatics Program, 100 Institute Road, Worcester, MA 01609.