A Call for Better Data Visualizations

I recently have been inspired by two quotes. The first one kind of hit it home for me.

Research shows that showing people research doesn’t work.
— Professor John Sterman, MIT

I am a scientist by trade. I believe in the scientific method, and I have presented my results to colleagues and the public alike. When I first heard that quote, I almost took offense to it.

But then I thought about it. Most people go to conferences, stay the whole week, spend 15 minutes giving their talk, and that’s it. In the rare case, someone will come up to the presenter, have a conversation, and then shake hands, saying they will collaborate on future research. But does that really happen? Probably sometimes, but definitely not every time.

Then I start wondering, is our message getting to the public? When it comes to climate change, people talk about rising temperatures, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels. This is all important information, but does that visualization make sense to the public. Below is a graphic from the 2017 State of the Climate Report.

The report is an excellent read, and everyone should go take a look. However, the above image is the first graphic in the report. This is basically information overload for me. Stuff goes up, stuff goes down, stuff does neither. Individually, I understand each graph, but if I have a hard time trying to grasp the overall meaning of this chart, how will the public? Please note that I am not bashing the report, as it is a very important read for scientists and public alike. I’m simply suggesting we can do better with communication and visualization.

This then leads to the second quote:

If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.
— Buckminster Fuller, Architect, 1895-1983

Many organizations such as NOAA, NASA, the UK Met Office, and the Berkeley Earth team have been providing assessments of global monthly and annual temperature variations for decades. Yet, Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading came up with a much simpler way to display this information:

The results are nothing new, and there is no groundbreaking research here. Yet, since he starting tweeting these climate spirals and stripes a few years ago, it has exploded in popularity, and people have started to pay attention. In fact, the climate spiral showed up during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics! Someone once said to me that “no one in Iowa cares about sea level rise,” and he’s right. It’s important to take valuable information from our weather and climate datasets, remove the jargon, and produce visualizations that are digestible, innovative, and most importantly, tell a story. That is my current motivation, and I hope it is yours too.

In 2016, I attended the Carolina Climate Resilience Conference, held by the Carolinas Integrated Science and Assessments team. It’s not your typical scientific conference, as numerous organizations, municipalities, and universities attend to talk about issues with climate change and adaptation. I gave a presentation in which I didn’t talk at the audience, but rather asked them what kinds of weather and climate related information they wanted. I didn’t just give my talk and leave, I listened to users, both during the talk, as well as the rest of the conference. The answer I kept hearing was simple: story telling, interactivity, and local. This motivated me to work on my temperature and precipitation graphics seen in my interactive map. I’m well aware these graphics aren’t perfect, and isn’t the one stop solution to the problem, but I hope it’s a start.

This week, I return to the conference to present my work as a result of my 2016 talk, in hopes I can better tell a story using weather and climate data.