Visualizing the Stories Data Can Tell

Scientists and technologists are turning numbers about everything from condors to ocean-floor contours into visual representations of environmental issues.

December 16, 2014

ensia_logoWe’re living in an era of Big Data, but too often it’s nothing more than a fire hose of numbers and data sets that most would have difficulty understanding. Increasingly, though, entities such as non-governmental organizations, research institutes, academic journals and, most significantly, the U.S. government, are sharing massive stores of data not just for transparency, but also to encourage others to use the data in helpful, innovative ways.

“Lots of government data has always been available, particularly in the environmental area and science, but it hasn’t always been really accessible or easy to find, or in formats that nonscientists understand,” says Jeanne Holm, who serves as evangelist — a growing online repository of data from federal, state and local agencies — as well as chief knowledge architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Today, open data and open-source software — computer software that is made publicly available for anyone to use and manipulate in any way — is an important part of the process of translating data into something an engaged citizenry can use to shine a light on a wide range of environmental (and other) issues and point to solutions.

Following are some examples of how academics, programmers, NGOs and others are doing just that.


In California, Laci Videmsky, project director with the Resource Renewal Institute and a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, is part of a team of designers, hydrologists and developers creating theNew California Water Atlas — a digital upgrade to the California Water Atlas published in 1979 that has been called a “monument of 20th century cartographic publishing.” The vision for the New California Water Atlas, Videmsky says, is as a user’s guide to the state’s hugely complex and overburdened water system. The atlas includes an interactive water-pricing map showing what ratepayers across the state are paying per 100 cubic feet. “We want to provide possible benchmarks for the utilities, so they can see if their pricing is sustainable,” says Videmsky, noting that pricing for water in California is generally low and does not reflect real costs.