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Brick by brick: PhD candidate Elsie Lee-Robbins is transforming data with Lego visualizations

Elsie sitting at a table with lego bricks strewn across the surface and sitting next to a Lego block graph data visualization.

Monday, 02/19/2024

What if we made data visualizations out of Lego bricks? 

This is the question University of Michigan School of Information PhD candidate Elsie Lee-Robbins asked last year before beginning a playful Lego visualization project. 

Since then, her visualizations, displayed on the fourth floor of the North Quadrangle Residential and Academic Complex, have been inspiring UMSI students, staff and faculty to participate in a creative project that fuses data and play. 

Where do you fall on the Dungeons and Dragons alignment chart? What is your favorite month of the year? How many weeks of winter do you think we have left? 

Aside from collecting light-hearted data on the UMSI community, these questions encourage a sense of togetherness and fun among passersby. 

A close up of one of Elsie Lee-Robbins' Lego visualization.

“This has been a really fun side project,” Lee-Robbins says. “It’s great to see people engaging with the visualizations and seeing how they interact with the questions.” 

A self-described data visualization nerd, Lee-Robbins has been studying data, psychology and visual perception for years. Most recently, Lee-Robbins earned a Big Ten Academic Alliance student data visualization award for her Lego project. 

Before joining UMSI, she obtained a degree in psychology and information technology and informatics from Rutgers University. 

After graduating, she worked as a lab manager at Northwestern University in the Visual Thinking Lab, where she studied the creation of information visualization applications in education. 

At UMSI, Lee-Robbins is currently researching how data visualization designers can use learning objectives to create better visualizations. Her adviser is Eytan Adar

“I think the subjectivity of data visualizations is interesting,” she says. “When you’re making a data visualization, there are so many decisions you can make, from choosing a bar graph versus a line graph, to the colors implemented. You’re choosing what data you decide to emphasize. 

All of these impact how the audience responds and interacts with the data and ultimately what message they take away from the graph.” 

After graduating in Spring 2024, Lee-Robbins hopes to explore the potential of data visualization to educate and motivate people through combining personal narratives, engaging design, and informative data. In the meantime, her data visualization surveys can be found on the fourth floor of North Quad. 

“Everyone has been so engaging,” she says. “Thanks to the UMSI community for participating.” 


Learn more about Elsie Lee-Robbins by visiting her UMSI profile, and check out this YouTube video of Lee-Robbins giving a talk on Lego data visualizations

Apply to UMSI’s PhD in Information program. 


— Noor Hindi, UMSI public relations specialist