Sarah Pujol learned new software and collaborated in mapping exploratory research in Wikipedia

“I can proudly say I learned how to use functional HTML and CSS in a day.” —Sarah Pujol ’19

By Sarah Pujol ’19
Iowa City, Iowa
Computer Science

As a first-year student with little pre-Macalester exposure to computer science, I joined Professor Shilad Sen’s lab. I was happy to discover success in our lab did not depend solely on experience, but on collaboration, persistence, and openness to learning new things.

We applied approaches from mapping sites like Google Maps to information that was not geographic. Our team discovered the capabilities and limitations of current web mapping technology and bonded over the struggle to install new software on our computers.

Professor Sen’s lab spent 2016 collaboratively creating the World of Wikipedia. Our aim was to create an interactive world map to facilitate exploratory search. The map visualizes 250,000 Wikipedia pages using a geographical map, with more-related pages appearing closer to one another. This map can answer exploratory questions that a focused Google search couldn’t. For example, the map could respond to “Tell me more about biology” by displaying parts of the map with a high concentration of biology-related articles.

The research morphed into a software project early in the summer and I quickly became accustomed to bringing together a broad set of software technologies to address our research problems. Our group used Java, C++, Python, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript; many of which I had no experience in. This didn’t faze us.

We quickly learned to efficiently use Codecademy and other online courses to get up to speed in new technologies. I can proudly say I learned how to use functional HTML and CSS in a day. Each person on the team became skilled in a specialty area of the project. I became proficient with Mapnik, a Python library that we used to programmatically draw a physical representation of the map with country boundaries and topological contours.

We plan to publicly release our map soon and will use the map as a platform for running experiments that compare different solutions to research questions we encountered over the summer.

During this research, I learned how a software group works together to create a product and gained experience coding and learning new languages. However, my favorite part was working together with fellow computer science enthusiasts and making new friends.


Sarah’s research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

February 2 2017

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