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.

Ensia
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 forData.gov — 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.

Water

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.

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What Drones Are Learning from Insects

Large, unmanned aerial vehicles, aka UAVs or drones, look like regular (albeit, menacing) airplanes. But there are also small drones that look like big insects, and they’re being programmed to act like them too. Insectile drones could evolve into useful minions to track, map, and respond to climate change.

Climate Confidential
October 31, 2014

A beetle (Mecynorrhina ugandensis) is saddled with an electronic backpack. (Photo credit: Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley)
A beetle (Mecynorrhina ugandensis) is saddled with an electronic backpack. (Photo credit: Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley)October 31, 2014

Since the dawn of entomology (more or less), scientists have been pondering the question posed so eloquently in “High Hopes,” a song Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote for the 1959 movie “A Hole in the Head,” starring Frank Sinatra: Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?

Stephen Pratt, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, knows the answer as well as anyone. He runs Pratt Lab, where researchers study how insect societies source food, build nests, and generally get along. The very short answer, he said, is that ants use collective, decentralized intelligence to perform complex tasks. It helps that they also lack an instinct for self-preservation and are focused only on actions that advance the group’s missions.

These characteristics have piqued the interest of robotics engineers such as Vijay Kumar, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He and the researchers in his GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception) lab are developing “swarms” of UAVs that work in concert. These devices take hundreds of measurements each second, calculating their position in relation to each other, working cooperatively toward particular missions, and just as important, avoiding each other despite moving quickly and in tight formations. Kumar and his colleagues are using intel from Pratt’s lab, particularly around how ants communicate and cooperate without any central commander, to make swarming UAVs even more autonomous.

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It’s a Hardrock Life

In Wisconsin’s picturesque Northwoods, a big battle over iron-ore extraction is pitting environmentalists and Native Americans against mining companies and their political allies.

Earth Island Journal
Summer 2014

EIJ-logoThe cab of Bill Heart’s Ford Ranger is cluttered with pamphlets and fishing gear, and as we pull out onto Highway 77, just north of the high ridge formed by Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, a warm August wind rushes through the open windows and whips up patches of fur left behind by his pack of dogs. “My wife has a habit of collecting strays,” he quips. It’s summer and Heart would rather be out fishing. Instead, he is taking me to Harvest Camp, an ad hoc village of makeshift tents, wigwams-in-progress, fire pits, and a sweat lodge that has been established by the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, one of six bands of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

Usually, harvest camps are simply a meeting place for tribal members to share their knowledge of local plant life and its medicinal applications on land they ceded through treaties, but on which they still retain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. This camp is different. It has become a de facto base camp for protestors – people from both within and outside the tribes – who want to block a massive, $1.5 billion-open pit iron ore mine nearby.

The Penokee Hills span Iron and Ashland Counties in Wisconsin’s iconic Northwoods. The hills are the headwaters of the Bad River that flows into Lake Superior, which by surface area is the world’s largest freshwater lake. But there’s also an estimated 3.7 billion tons of iron ore underneath the mountain ridge. In total, the deposit is roughly 20 percent of all remaining US iron ore reserves. Gogebic Taconite (GTac), a subsidiary of the Cline Group, owned by Florida coal magnate Chris Cline, has its sights set on this iron ore. Mining the ore body would start with a mine roughly 4 miles in length and 800 feet deep, making it the largest open pit mine of its kind in the world. The full ore body is 22 miles long, so the long-term potential for changing the landscape is astounding. If the vein were to be completely dug out, the hole in the ground would be big enough to contain the largest open pit iron mine in the US five times over.

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Squeezing Cleaner Energy from Coal’s Waste

Coal mine methane could soon transform from problematic waste to valuable fuel

elk_creek_coal_mine_goldeneagle
In a Colorado valley where miners have harvested coal for more than a century, a second fuel—methane—escapes from the thick black seams of the Elk Creek mine. A system of boreholes and pipes around the mine funnels methane-rich gas to a modified truck engine. Using a trio of one-megawatt generators, the engine converts this methane to electricity for the local power grid.
Elk Creek is the first methane-to-energy project at a coal mine west of the Mississippi and the largest of its kind nationwide. But coal mines like Elk Creek contribute about 10 percent of methane emissions nationally and 6 percent of methane emissions worldwide, and they continue to release methane long after mining operations have ended. The gas also seeps from swamps, industrial flues, landfills, cattle farms and natural gas operations.

In fact, so much methane enters Earth’s atmosphere each year that globally it is the second largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Methane dissipates more quickly than carbon, but its strength as a greenhouse gas over a 100-year period is more than 20 times that of CO2.

Burning methane can generate energy or useful heat while lessening its climate impact—essentially reducing the gas to a weaker brew of water and carbon dioxide. At Elk Creek, burning just over 670,ooo cubic feet of methane per day—roughly 16 percent of the mine’s total methane emissions—in an internal combustion engine is expected to generate 24 gigawatt hours annually. That’s enough electricity to power roughly 2,000 homes.

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The Dangers of Kickstarter

Kickstarter has become the go-to funding source for serious expeditions and boondoggles alike. And that has some benefactors wanting their cash back.

Outside Magazine, February 2013

Last May, Andrew Badenoch, a thirtysomething former Internet marketer in Oregon, set off on a 7,000-mile solo expedition from Bellingham, Washington, with a jumbo-tired fat bike and a pack raft. His goal was to travel to the Arctic Sea and back under his own power, all the while making a documentary about the trip. Backing him were 212 individuals who anted up a combined $10,437 via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. PBS even loaned Badenoch camera equipment and agreed to run his footage as an online series.

kickstarter-andrew-badenoch_feBy late summer, though, the expedition had fallen apart, and Badenoch, who had never before embarked on a human-powered expedition of this scale, had quietly returned to Oregon after bailing on the trip in Pink Mountain, British Columbia. He later blamed “14 weeks of delays” and told supporters the “weather window had closed.” Throughout the summer, a handful of backers had asked him via Twitter for updates on his status and location. Except for a handful of tweets, these largely went unanswered. Badenoch now says that he could have been better at communicating his plans. But he also maintains that “it was never my intent to explain everything as I went. That’s not part of the documentary.” As for the money, Badenoch has yet to offer a breakdown of his expenses, because, he says, he plans to complete the trip this spring and produce his documentary. “I have no comment on accounting specifics while the project remains in progress,” he wrote in an email last fall. “When adding layers of accounting, reporting day-to-day activities, and scrutinizing every word and detail during the creative process, the creative process is killed.”

To some of his backers, this all sounds pretty thin. “He should have told people if things had not gone according to plan,” says Hendrik Morkel, 31, a Finnish wilderness guide and author who donated $25 to Badenoch and has used Kickstarter to produce his own online series about ultralight gear. “Sometimes that’s how expeditions go.”

Explorers have been soliciting financial backing since Columbus first begged boats off of Queen Isabella. Companies like Eddie Bauer, the North Face, and Rolex have been the primary backers since the mid-20th century, but social media have provided an additional option: the public. With Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, adventurers can create a pitch with an embedded video, spread the word on Facebook, and watch the money roll (or, more often, trickle) in. The company has provided a funding platform for about 75 expeditions, though it’s important to note that the backers didn’t pay for those trips per se. When funders drop cash on an expedition, they’re funding what Kickstarter calls the “creative work” that will result—usually a film or book—and the best ideas with the most enthusiasm behind them usually win. But crowdfunding isn’t venture capitalism. Apart from rewards like getting your name in a documentary’s credits or, say, receiving artifacts collected during an expedition, there is no return on investment. Pitchmen have little responsibility to their funders, which opens the door for overpromising—or worse.

Read full story here.