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Maker of Pure Michigan road trip map reflects on viral success

April 1, 2015

During the week, PhD candidate Randy Olsen studies computer science in Professor Chris Adami’s lab. For the last year and a half, he has spent his weekends updating his blog, providing data visualizations on a variety of topics.

His recent post, Pure Michigan road map, optimized, flooded Facebook newsfeeds and trended early this week. Now, the post has more than 65,000 shares.

“I never suspected it would go this far," Olsen said. "I thought it was a silly little application and it went beyond our wildest dreams."

This blogging serves as an outlet for Olsen when he is drowning in his own research. It is an escape for him to be productive when he's struggling in his studies.

After he graduates in May, the southern California native hopes to travel his path across Michigan to see all the beauties the state has to offer before starting a new job. He hopes to get the full “Pure Michigan experience.”

“I realize I’ve been (in Michigan) for four years now and I’ve only done day trips around the state — it would be nice to do a trip around the state before I leave,” he said. “Whenever you move in my field, when you move, you move far away.”

Olsen collaborated a list of hot spot locations, provided by Pure Michigan campaign, and optimized a route that requires the least amount of driving time.

Some of the spots are very specific, while others are just listed as the city name.

“I’m trying my hardest not to be a travel guide person because that makes another group of people angry,” he said. “Some people specialize in certain cities… so I sort of just refer people to the (Pure Michigan) website itself. Each of these top spots have their own sites listing great attractions.”

When he takes the trip himself, Olsen plans to make about two to three spots per city over a weeks timespan. 

The spots will vary depending on the individuals interests. For Olsen, he plans to make visit historical locations and top-ranked restaurants.  

Before moving here to pursue his graduate program at MSU, he wondered what was so great about Michigan. But after spending some time in the state, he realized that it had a lot to offer.

“It is really diverse in the sense that you cross the bridge, you are in a completely different world…I think it’s a really cool idea to try and get a sense of the entire state,” Olsen said. “You’ve got the big cities, the tourist and the beautiful outdoor attractions.”

In addition to the Michigan map, Olsen has developed optimized routes around Europe, New York City and Philadelphia, South America, and the United States. He has collaborated data and presented it using visuals, such as graphs and infographics, showing the top richest comedians and a strategy for finding Waldo.

“Once we discover something, we need to communicate it in some way. I found that communicating it visually was the best way. For me, what I’m usually communicating is data, or some sort of story based off data,” he said. “You could try to sell the story without the data, more of a narrative — personally I don’t find that as compelling.”

On the Reddit forum DataIsBeautiful, Olsen contributes regularly and uses this as a way to receive feedback. When he first joined the community, there were about 50,000 subscribers. Since then, it has expanded to almost three million because it became a default subreddit. Olsen is fairly well-known by the forum’s users.

The feedback has been very critical in refining my data visualizations, he said.

“I wanted to explore and practice my skills. I’ve also gotten a lot better at data analysis because I practice them on the weekend and I get feedback,” Olsen said. “It’s been a real win, win, win in many ways using my weekends blogging.”

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