What Does Data Visualization Have to Do With the Bible with Robert Rouse viz.Bible | Episode 22

Tune in to this the most recent episode of our Future.Bible Podcast with our special guest, Robert Rouse. Robert is an air force academy graduate, former Tableau Zen master and analytics consultant who has spent years collecting, visualizing and sharing data about Biblical subjects.

In this episode, Robert will discuss the project he is currently working on, the visualization of the data in the Bible. These visualizations include the family trees in the Bible and the maps of the places the characters have gone through. This will make it easier for the people to understand the genealogy and the important places mentioned in the Bible.

Get to know more about Robert and his work through their website, viz.Bible/journeys.

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INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

DJ Chuang:                Welcome to the podcast today. This is the place for Kenny and I get a chance to interview leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs at the intersection of Bible and technology. Look ahead as well as being what’s happening right now in that space. Today we have Robert Rouse with us. Welcome to the future.Bible podcast.

Robert Rouse:              Great to be on with you all.

DJ Chuang:                 Robert is an air force academy graduate, former Tableau Zen master and analytics consultant who has spent years collecting, visualizing and sharing data about Biblical subjects. And his big dream is to build the future of Bible applications. So tell us about your current project. How is it going?

Robert Rouse:            Yes. I really, I’m just trying to continue the work that I started. Oh Gosh, almost 10 years ago now. I started getting more and more into data at work, doing things with business intelligence and all the reporting tool tools and dashboards and just found a lot of neat ways to navigate data and do fun things like throw it on maps and look through things by timelines and stuff like that. And I thought, well, I mean this, this corporate data that I’m looking at with places and people and calendars and time, like all of that’s in the Bible and it’s data that I had already started collecting. So, I mean the projects that I do are really just built off of that idea, a way to take the things that I do in the business world, technologies that are coming around in that space and communicate something about the Bible through, through that technique and that technology.

Kenny Jahng:              That’s pretty cool. So tell us a little about your latest project. What is the name of it, what’s the URL, and then we can take it from there.

Robert Rouse:            Yes. Well, my latest project actually doesn’t have a URL just yet. The one that I recently completed, which was really fun, was a map of Paul’s missionary journeys. It was taking some new mapping technology, cool things that you can do with mapbox, so think of like a Google map style thing, but for places in the Bible and particularly Paul’s missionary journeys where you can like zoom in and out and click on places, find out more information. The neat thing about this is that the background of that isn’t our modern world. It’s the ancient Roman world. See all the Roman roads and provinces and stuff like that. So that’s the last one that’s fully released. That’s at viz.Bible/journeys. The one I’m working on now, which we can get into a little bit later is something that actually really got started in full force at a hackathon through the faith tech ministry. Some folks in Chicago that I met up with a invited me to come there and um, find some people that would, that would help with the project. And so now where there’s an open source initiative to kind of take this data that I’ve been collecting and using to build visualizations and take that idea further. So I’m excited about where that’s going, not, not much out there yet except the results from a fairly short hackathon and a whole lot of ideas

Kenny Jahng:             Now you are known for being one of the guys out there that are really collecting data about the Bible, the scriptures. Right? And so tell us a little bit of how that started. What inspired you to start collecting data sets? And what are the types of data that you are actually collecting?

Robert Rouse:            It started a very long time ago when I started thinking about how pastors or theologians will come up and talk about some word in the Bible that Paul mentions the word love so many times in Corinthians. And you know, my analytical, mathematical engineering background says, “well, alright, well he, he says it that many times in that book, but how many times is it mentioned in other books and you know, what percentage of words is that, you know, is that significant? How much more does Paul Talks about love and Corinthians? Then we talk about love anywhere else in the Bible.” So like, I wanted to have a way to compare those kinds of numbers and those kinds of statistical things that I hear people talk about in sermons. So that’s where it started, was restructuring the words and verses in the Bible so that I could do that kind of thing on my own.

Robert Rouse:             But with that, I realized, well, I mean I’ve got this cool tool over here that will make maps, like what if I just take that word, that’s the name of the place and for the latitude and longitude on it. And that’s where I found openBible.info, which is a really great site that has geographic data that you can download and using Google maps. So I pulled that in and, and made that a part of the database. Then I started finding topical indexes and then I started thinking about time, you know, how can we put some kind of a timeline against this? And that’s actually been the hardest thing to find. I ended up producing much of it myself from some older kind of topical that had some time components in it. But at a very rudimentary level, so it was something that just kind of grew a piece at a time as I wanted to do a new visualization or I somehow found another data set that I could incorporate, and just kind of merged it in.

DJ Chuang:                 That’s fascinating. So you’ve worked with data visualization using software like Tableau, and for those that don’t know what data visualization is, can you explain what it is because it’s only become popular in our vernacular maybe for a year or two. And you said you’ve worked for 10 years. So how has it made a difference? What’s the big benefit with data visualization?

Robert Rouse:             It’s something that in our digital culture is making a huge, huge impact. I think there are a lot of reasons why. One is just that as soon as you put data on something and it immediately feels more trustworthy, oftentimes that’s not really true. It can fool you really fast. But I’m seeing that there’s some data associated with, in our mindset and our culture gives that sense of trustworthiness. But for me that’s not really the motivation. I was inspired really early on by several data visualizations that were going around the internet. There was one that, that was a map of the entire world showing people’s friendships on Facebook. It was a beautiful image. It carried a message with it about how people are connected across borders. And it was a very inventive way to communicate something that was based on data but had a very personal element to it.

Robert Rouse:             And in kind of similar fashion, I came across a visualization that was based on Bible data, right? Bible cross-references, and it had these huge sweeping arcs with connections from one chapter of the Bible to the next. And it carried a similar kind of message saying, you know, just like people are connected around the world, every part of the Bible is connected to every other part. In this very beautiful emotionally engaging way, when I look at things that people share online, right? We know that images really capture people’s attention. If you want to get noticed on social media, you need to use an image. So we’ve got all these tools to help you put quotes on top of images and you know, put stickers and other fun little things like that. What’s different about data visualization is that it not only gets your attention in that image way, that in a way that stirs up some feeling, but it prompts a question, it prompts you to think. It’s often very dense data. It’s something that, that goes past, that initial emotional response towards something that I think causes you to think a little bit more deeply. Even if just for a moment or two, it can prompt a question prompt a conversation in your own mind or with others. So it takes advantage of the emotional and the mental analytical kinds of things all in one package.

DJ Chuang:                 Prompting people to think and to consider the Bible, how does it help people better understand the Bible? Does it require a deep discipled believers or can a new believer begins to take a next step with data visualization?

Robert Rouse:             Well, let me talk about a fundamental principle of what we talked about in my world of consulting businesses on you know, why you should make a chart instead of a table of numbers. When you’re trying to process information verbally or just through looking at words or looking through individual pieces of information. We know that people can only store so many numbers, so many words in their head at one given time. So as soon as you get more than like seven or eight names in your head, it gets hard to process that mentally. But it turns out that if you have something visual and you don’t have to store all of that information in your head in order to put the components together, you can take advantage of a God given ability to process visual information much more efficiently.

Robert Rouse:             Now, where that applies to the Bible and particularly with storytelling, that’s something that in the world of data visualization is a buzzword. How do we tell a story with this data? Well, think about examples from the old testament that I kind of jokingly say that these are passages that you would put on a sleep timer and listen to on your audio Bible at night because they’re just lists of names. Okay. It’s literally a data set. Another way that I look at it’s all the who begats, you know, Adam begat Seth and begat and begat and begat. And it talks about how old they were when their son was born and how old they were when they died and all these sorts of things. And it’s just a full chapter worth of names and facts, names and facts. In Genesis 5 isn’t the only chapter like that.

Robert Rouse:             We’ve got that in several places in the Old Testament. So the question is then, well, is that something that we should just skip over? Is that something we shouldn’t talk about or think about in discipleship? I think, you know, if it’s worth preserving and putting in the Bible that it’s, it’s worth finding a way to put it together in a story. Put it together in a way that we can process mentally. So one thing that I did as a project early on was to take those names and relationships between people, the father to son and so on and so on. Link those up in a network diagram, which is the kind of diagram that you would see when people are describing people’s friendships on social media, but if we use that for ancestry relationships now these chapters that you know I’m not only from Genesis and Chronicles and all those things in the Old Testament, they link all the way through the New Testament, the genealogies of Jesus and the gospels and we see now how everybody from Adam to Abraham, to Isaac, to David, to Jesus is connected.

Robert Rouse:             And that tells a story. It tells a visual story that when you color that line of the lineage of Jesus, you see some really interesting things. Not only was he the son of David, but he was the son of David in two different ways through Mary and though Joseph, which is a great thing to be talking about. We’re recording this at the end of the year where we’re, we’re celebrating that event and those people. So that’s something that just jumps right out at you, but had to read through all those lists of names in chapters that are scattered across the Bible, it’s a lot of mental work. It’s a lot of study. It’s something that you just wouldn’t otherwise be likely to see without that visual.

Kenny Jahng:              It is interesting though, the data visualization pulls out the focus on connections versus just the topics, I guess. Right? Is this something that we’re going to see more of in discipleship and in studying of the Bible in small groups, etc. Do you think they’re going to be tools that are going to be popularized, that late people can actually engage in pretty quickly?

Robert Rouse:             I sure hope so. When I talk about Bible Cross references and show people some of my ideas, some of the things that people say, “oh, you know, what would be really useful is things like, well, I know that this verse is a quotation from the Old Testament, but from where, what’s that connected to and why? Is it there because it’s a quotation? is there because it’s a fulfillment of prophecy, right?” We have those cross references in our Bible, but we don’t necessarily know why they’re connected. Those are things that I think that exist in Bible software that’s out there. But I’ve found that those things, first of all, are mostly desktop software. The ones that aren’t, you can get a ton of Bible translations. You can get a ton of like reading plans and social sharing options and things like that.

Robert Rouse:             I would like to see those things that are baked into a somewhat pricey desktop software that price point come down and become more accessible to those people who are looking at the Bible on a mobile device. The touchscreen, they might be doing that on their own somewhere in a coffee shop or they might be doing it in a small group study and just want some extra resource that gives them a little bit more information about what they’re trying to study. That’s one thing that I hope to see coming down down the pike in the future.

Kenny Jahng:              Yes. And again, it looks, this whole topic reminds me of, there’s a heavy promotional emphasis now on things like, even discover your DNA, a genealogy and the ancestry.com, etc. And you could see that people are just fascinated by that history. And I can see how that might be a portal into this whole category of content that, “hey, that, that type of relationship and story is available right here in God’s family and you’re a part of it.” And I think there’s just so much potential that I can see. One of the things that I think that’s great for I guess, I was asked by somebody who you interviewing today and I came up with the term that he’s a Bible entrepreneur because it always seems like you’re, every time we talked to you last time we talked to you at the faithleads.tech conference in Nashville and we’ve talked to you on the phone before and every time you’re thinking about new applications of technology or tools that we have available to, you know, Bible content, you’re always tinkering around. And so I understand you have a new or this next chapter, this next project that you are pretty excited about. Why don’t we spend some time talking about that? So tell us a little bit about what’s next coming out of it. Is that part of this .Bible or is that another project?

Robert Rouse:            Yes. Well I’ve always loved to tinker. I always wanted to be an inventor, so you could probably describe me as a Bible inventor or Bible technologists, something like that. I don’t know if I can attach the word entrepreneur to anything because they don’t actually sell anything yet through my efforts, you know, that might change depending on where things go. The current project is to try to take those things that I’ve collected for individual visualizations, right? The genealogies of all the people in the Bible, maps of all the places of the Bible and string those together to tell the story in a different way and to make something that I think represents the future where Bible application should go. So the project is called Theographic. I’m approaching it really as an open source project and in fact, for anybody that’s into open source project and it’s good at code or design, you can find Theographic on Github, and read about how to get involved there.

Robert Rouse:             The basic idea of it is to solve some things that I think are fundamental problems with Bible applications today. And the example that I love to give is when you’re searching for Abraham, right? This is a character who is a chief component of the Abrahamic religions, which covers most of the world’s religious thinking. So let’s say that you want to find verses in the Bible about Abraham, so naturally you’re going to type that into a search box on your favorite Bible app or on a Bible website. And what it’s going to give you is everything from Genesis 17 onward, and it’s going to skip five entire chapters about Abraham’s life. And the reason that it skips it is because he had a different name at the time. He was still called Abram. His name didn’t change Abraham until genesis chapter 17. So that’s the first verse result you’re going to find.

Robert Rouse:             So I compare that with our experiences in every search engine today, Google in particular, that’s smart enough to know that you’re not just searching for a word on a, on a page, you’re searching for a person. You’re searching for information about that person. And in fact, if you type Abraham into google, you’re going to get this little info box on the right about him when he was born, places that he went, you know, his spouse, his children, all that stuff. And that’s what I’d like to see for Bible data. Google does that with the technology they called their Knowledge Graph. So that’s part of the thinking behind the term Theographic. Graph is just a way to say, you know, this is representing connections between facts. So I’m building data structures and building ways to display navigate those data structures that I think is as easy as you can possibly get.

Robert Rouse:             Everything is just one search term or one click away. You know, take the other example of Wikipedia, you’re reading about Abraham on Wikipedia and if you want to find out about his wife Sarah or the land of Canaan, all of those words are hyperlinked, right? You just click on it and there you go. The Bible applications today, it’s harder than that. It’s still relatively simple compared to, you know, searching, doing library research. It’ll do a lot of that searching for you, but you still have to search, you still have to find a navigation menu. You still have to do some things like, well, you know, if I’m searching for Saul or someone named Simon, well, there are several people that have gone by that name. You might have to do a little more digging to figure out which one is which.

Robert Rouse:             So the idea behind Theographic stall, so help people navigate those thinGs so that you don’t have to do that kind of digging. It just takes you to the right place in one click. So that’s what we’re building. It’s in very, very early stages. I’ve got a lot of the data together. It’s fully complete just for one book of the Bible, the book of Acts, but it’s something that is growing pretty rapidly as a result of connections that I was able to make during the faithleads.tech conference where we met recently, the hackathon, from Chicago. And just subsequent followup conversations. God has really brought a lot of new people into this project and I’m still praying that He’ll make a way to make it possible. And I believe He will.

Kenny Jahng:              For all these projects, Robert, it looks like you’re basically on the cutting edge or you’re really tinkering on that fringe going forward. Which would you say is the limiting factor? Is it the technology and the horsepower of the tools that you can actually apply to it? Or is it the data sets that you need in certain organized fashion?

Robert Rouse:             It’s definitely not the horsepower. When people talk about big data, they usually mean things on the scale of Facebook or Twitter or wherever you’ve gotten millions of people having millions and bIllions of interactions per day, or they’re talking about click stream data through websites where you’ve got millions or even billions of clicks a day. That’s big data and that’s where you run into hardware problems. Look, there’s only, there’s less than 750,000 words in the whole Bible. Even if you had 10 different translations were still not really talking about a big data set in terms of computing power. So the difficulty really is the availability of that data. I mentioned openBible.info. You know, most people when they use geographic data online through an online Bible application, they use that because, you know what, that’s what’s available. That’s what’s out there in sort of a public space.

Robert Rouse:             It’s not fully open source, you know as creative comments, but, you know, it’s out there and it’s available for people to use. But there’s really not a lot like that out there. That’s particularly true of timelines. So I’ve done my best to take that data that I’ve pulled together and structure, and formatted and tweaked to make that available for people. I think we need a lot more of that. If we’re going to have a thriving ecosystem of Bible apps for a new generation then we needed a new generation of open source, freely available datasets that go beyond accessing the text of a Bible translation because I’ll say there’s a lot of great tools available that help you get the text of the Bible in all kinds of languages and all sorts of versions and versification systems and all of that. What I’m trying to do is link that text to two subjects, link it to a place on a map, link it to a person’s ancestry, link it to a time in history. So it’s those linkages that I’d like to see more openly available data so that people can be creative, make their own things, come up with their own solutions to problems that they see.

DJ Chuang:                 Wow. All I can say is wow. I’m speechless and this is an amazing work that you’re pioneering because I’m thinking, I have studied the Bible in seminary and try to make those connections in my head and now you’re actually visualizing it so we don’t have to keep It in our head and more people can understand the connections in the Bible in so many different ways. So thank you for pioneering what you’re doing. Remind us again, what is the topic of your talk at faithleads.tech that our viewers and listeners can access?

Robert Rouse:             Yes. The talk was called Bible Study Beyond Words, using data visualization as a teaching tool. So the idea of Bible study beyond words is, you know, when we represent things visually and give people these charts that show people connections and, you know, even relative frequencies of words like I mentioned, that adds a different dimension to our Bible study.

DJ Chuang:                Yes. Fantastic. Yes. Faithleads.tech Is the website where you can purchase a digital pass to access Robert’s talk and a dozen other talks as well as the backstage interviews. And for those of you that are listeners and viewers to the future.Bible p odcasts, we have a free digital pass to the on demand viewing of these videos. Comment on this podcast episode on future.Bible and we’ll select a winner. Let’s see whenever this gets posted, will put a date there. So, we’ll draw a winner at that date. Thank you Robert for dropping by and sharing about all the exciting things that you’re doing with tech and the Bible. Hope we get a chance again to revisit in several months and discover what the next project you’re working on.

Robert Rouse:            Be glad to do it.

DJ Chuang:                Great. Robert, Kenny, thanks for an amazing conversation and thank you to our audience for listening to the future.Bible podcast. Please let us know your thoughts and reflections about today’s interview at our website, future.Bible, and we are always looking for suggestions for future shows, so let us know through email, social media, whatever you’d like, and we really asked for your input because we want to be the number one show where you meet innovators, ready to talk about how we can apply the always evolving world of technology to the never changing message found in the Bible. All for deeper engagement with the Bible and it’s life changing message and remember for videos, transcripts, and more head over to www.future.Bible. So the next time, be blessed and remember to be a blessing.

HIGHLIGHTS:

02:20 Well, my latest project actually doesn’t have a URL just yet. The one that I recently completed, which was really fun, was a map of Paul’s missionary journeys. It was taking some new mapping technology, cool things that you can do with mapbox, so think of like a Google map style thing, but for places in the Bible and particularly Paul’s missionary journeys where you can like zoom in and out and click on places, find out more information. The neat thing about this is that the background of that isn’t our modern world. It’s the ancient Roman world. See all the Roman roads and provinces and stuff like that. So that’s the last one that’s fully released. That’s at viz.bible/journeys. The one I’m working on now, which we can get into a little bit later is something that actually really got started in full force at a hackathon through the faith tech ministry. Some folks in Chicago that I met up with a invited me to come there and um, find some people that would, that would help with the project. And so now where there’s an open source initiative to kind of take this data that I’ve been collecting and using to build visualizations and take that idea further.

06:54 as soon as you put data on something and it immediately feels more trustworthy, oftentimes that’s not really true. It can fool you really fast. But I’m seeing that there’s some data associated with, in our mindset and our culture gives that sense of trustworthiness. But for me that’s not really the motivation. I was inspired really early on by several data visualizations that were going around the internet. There was one that, that was a map of the entire world showing people’s friendships on Facebook. It was a beautiful image. It carried a message with it about how people are connected across borders. And it was a very inventive way to communicate something that was based on data but had a very personal element to it.

08:37 What’s different about data visualization is that it not only gets your attention in that image way, that in a way that stirs up some feeling, but it prompts a question, it prompts you to think. It’s often very dense data. It’s something that, that goes past, that initial emotional response towards something that I think causes you to think a little bit more deeply. Even if just for a moment or two, it can prompt a question prompt a conversation in your own mind or with others. So it takes advantage of the emotional and the mental analytical kinds of things all in one package.

13:06 those lists of names in chapters that are scattered across the Bible, it’s a lot of mental work. It’s a lot of study. It’s something that you just wouldn’t otherwise be likely to see without that visual.

20:56 So the idea behind Theographic stall, so help people navigate those thinGs so that you don’t have to do that kind of digging. It just takes you to the right place in one click. So that’s what we’re building. It’s in very, very early stages. I’ve got a lot of the data together. It’s fully complete just for one book of the bible, the book of Acts, but it’s something that is growing pretty rapidly as a result of connections that I was able to make during the faith leads tech conference where we met recently, the hackathon, from Chicago. And just subsequent followup conversations. God has really brought a lot of new people into this project and I’m still praying that He’ll make a way to make it possible. And I believe He will.

22:16 It’s definitely not the horsepower. When people talk about big data, they usually mean things on the scale of Facebook or Twitter or wherever you’ve gotten millions of people having millions and bIllions of interactions per day, or they’re talking about click stream data through websites where you’ve got millions or even billions of clicks a day. That’s big data and that’s where you run into hardware problems. Look, there’s only, there’s less than 750,000 words in the whole bible. Even if you had 10 different translations were still not really talking about a big data set in terms of computing power. So the difficulty really is the availability of that data.


One Reply to “What Does Data Visualization Have to Do With the Bible with Robert Rouse viz.Bible | Episode 22”

  1. Vincent Baumel

    Great podcast guys! I love the idea of studying scripture through the lens of data visualization. I’ve gotten so much additional value out of my study bible on account of the infographics and charts, because they speak to a part of my brain that simple text does not. I’ve been a fan of Robert’s work for a few years now, and will continue to follow along with his work and this podcast as well. Keep up the great work!

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