Writing

Visualizing climate data through tangible objects

We live in an age of data-driven decision making and these decisions impact every aspect of our lives. Mobile phones, smart meters and sensors, store cards, and social media are all generating data that simply didn't exist before. This is in addition to the huge archives of information that already exist: health records, transport routes, maps, spending information, which are now all digital – but rarely accessible.

Complex problems demand massive amounts of data to analyze and solve. From environmental threats such as climate change and energy security, to social equity and economic prosperity, we now live in an age where, for better and worse, statistics guide our policy. As science historian James Burke has noted, "information causes change, otherwise it's not information”.

The principle behind the Open Data movement is to make data more freely available for people to download, use, and share with others. Not everyone has the time or the ability to make the most out of raw data, and access shouldn’t be limited to governing bodies, corporationssign, and specialists. A second way of making data more accessible is through effective communication. Data analysts such as bloggers, journalists, and activists can make the underlying meaning of data more easily understandable through the use of effective storytelling. Effective data visualization can be an immensely powerful way of conveying complex analyses in clear and simple terms for a lay audience.

I am fascinated in exploring the relationship of data with objects. In my junior year I took a Data Visualization class with the Design and Technology department. In this class, I learned how to code with Javascript and use Data Viz Libraries such as D3.js and P5.js. 

Open data can help communities react to global warming and make better decisions. We need to improve the free flow of climate change data so we can start to get a handle on protecting people and property from the coming impacts of a changing climate. With that intention in mind, I acquired raw data sets from NASA and NOAA for sea level rise, change in CO2 levels, and rise in average global temperatures. I cleaned up the raw data to be easily input into my code that is open source on my website. I then generated graphs. However the biggest challenge was how to represent these graphs with a 3-dimensional object. I wanted to show the scale and severity of these issues as clearly as possible. If you’re using data to communicate your story, whatever it may be, presenting it in a simple, memorable, digestible format is the best way to get your message across.

I decided to focus on school-aged children as my user group. If children are able to learn about climate change from a young age they may act more responsibly towards their environments. I started prototyping toys that would communicate this data. Using objects to represent data takes visualizations to another level — it is much more compelling than simply showing a graph on a piece of paper or screen. As my final prototype for the class, I created an interactive 3-dimensional waiting room toy for children that represented key climate data from 1880 to 2010.