From idea to reality - How InfraVis came to be

Building a distributed national research infrastructure like InfraVis requires a lot of dedication and strong collaborative efforts. Monica Billger, InfraVis Director, and Anders Ynnerman, InfraVis Steering Committee Chair, spearheaded the foundation of InfraVis, together with colleagues from partner universities. In this interview, Monica Billger and Anders Ynnerman tell us about the mission of InfraVis, how the research infrastructure came to be and what feels most exciting and challenging in this early phase.

Why was InfraVis needed and what is its mission? 

Anders: Visualization has become an essential tool in scientific discovery in a range of academic domains. However, there is a gap between the visualization research forefront and the current practices in most application domains. The first ideas for InfraVis came out of the realization that there were more potential collaborators in scientific application domains than the existing research groups in visualization could handle. Furthermore, many of the requests did not require new research in visualization itself. This triggered the idea of providing visualization competence as a service across the country. 

The mission of InfraVis is to create a shortcut between state-of-the-art visualization and domain experts, and thus generate visualization-driven competitive advantages for Swedish research. InfraVis is based on the idea of a service-oriented infrastructure building on human competence, software and supporting hardware. 

Monica: If we break down the mission of building a research infrastructure based on human competence into building blocks, it implies providing user support to researchers who need help in different aspects of data visualization: to analyze, visualize, communicate as well as to understand their research results better and to have a chance to impact research in a way. 

Can you tell us in more detail what the path looked like? 

Monica: Prior to the development of the idea of InfraVis, interest in visualization was growing at four universities simultaneously, including Chalmers, Linköping, Lund and KTH. The visualization centers at these universities saw an urgent need for data visualization support across all research areas. On the national level, Anders was leading a committee at the Swedish Research Council with the aim of evaluating the Swedish research infrastructures. Based on the evaluation, the Swedish Research Council pointed out that we needed to have research infrastructures built on humans, which is exactly what we at the visualization centers had in mind. Anders and I, who had known each other from before, reached out to our colleagues Joakim Eriksson in Lund and Mario Romero at KTH, and the four of us applied for a planning grant for InfraVis. We got it in 2014 and started working towards making an application. This involved a lot of intense team work and going through long procedures of interviews, user needs investigations and even full applications twice, stretched over seven years. We learnt a lot on the way, and we grew not only in terms of knowledge but also in terms of number. When we made the first application, we were no longer four universities. Most of the partner universities were already onboard at this point. InfraVis is a collaboration, and all the hard work leading up to the approval of our final application in autumn 2021 attests to that. 

Anders: Indeed, the path that InfraVis took was not straight and we have learnt much in the process of writing two full applications. Now we are finally in the process of putting together an excellent team across the participating nodes. I am very grateful for all the hard work that so many people put in to make this happen. Thank you!

InfraVis has officially set sail, with pilot projects in operation. What feels most exciting in this early phase?

 Anders: It is amazing to see that we are now, after many years, in a position to launch the services that we envisioned already back in 2015. It is really exciting that the nodes are coming online and that advanced competence is being built and recruited. The pilot projects will enable us to get to know one another as well as to strengthen our position with some key users. It is all looking great!

Monica: I also think it is exciting to see how the various nodes are becoming fully operational. InfraVis colleagues are getting to know one another and developing mutual work paths. Through the pilot projects, courses and events that we are currently running, we are learning new things. All of these endeavors will help node coordinators and InfraVis experts to get going, and I am looking forward to that. 

What do you consider the biggest challenge for InfraVis in its early phase?

Monica: Being a distributed research infrastructure can be a great advantage in that our users have easy access to visualization expertise no matter where they are located around Sweden. But it is also a challenge: It is difficult to organize and manage a distributed research infrastructure. This also means that it is going to take some time before every InfraVis expert develops a sense of belonging and engagement. Another challenge is that several things need to be done simultaneously. This includes legwork, getting users who actually need help and providing them with excellent support. 

Anders: I am really looking forward to seeing the results of the pilot projects and then we will need a shift of focus towards the general services that we will be providing. Our main challenge after that is to reach out to the user communities and engage them through workshops and more in-depth user support projects. Ultimately, the success of InfraVis will be measured by how we have helped our users to do better science. This is a mindset shift for many of us who are researchers ourselves, but that is what an infrastructure is all about.

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