Breathing Earth

A frequent reader of this blog just pointed me to the “Breathing Earth” website, from which I took the snapshot pasted above. The site takes data about countries’ birth and death rates as well as carbon dioxide emissions and incorporates them into a single, interactive map of the world. Births and deaths show up as flashes on the world map, while the color of a country represents its carbon dioxide emissions.

What the snapshot above doesn’t show is the interactive bit of the site, which allows you to mouse over a country to learn about its particular birth and death rate as well as its carbon dioxide emissions. Plus, it features a running tally in the lower left-hand corner that shows how many people have been born, how many died, and how much carbon dioxide has been emitted since you personally opened the web page.

Overall, this strikes me as a spiffy visualization, and my initial inclination is to see more data represented—perhaps not all at the same time, since I would hate to see the pleasant design marred by overcrowding, but maybe as options. In other words, it seems like a good template. One of the challenges of presenting only a few data elements is that it suggests a causal connection between them, whereas having a more generous set of options would allow the user to explore more on her own. In terms of the content actually presented, I’m a little confused by what the color of the country really means, since the caption reads variously “country has emitted over/less than 1000 tonnes of CO2” and “is currently emitting more than 1000 tonnes of CO2.” The last statement is meaningless, since “currently” would require some rate of emission, not simply a quantity. So it seems that it could use a little more detail in the captioning.

(Then, on an utterly nitpicky note, the regular gridlines of the above image suggest a Mercator projection, but the layout of the geography looks more like the traditional Robinson projection. That annoys me, but I’m easily annoyed that way. For more on map projections, BTW, you can take a look at the “Geographer’s Craft” page or the more detailed but less complete page at USGS. For the truly anal-retentive, check out Hans Havlicek’s page for more information than most of us ever need on the topic.)

I actually took a very different approach to visualizing socio-economic data in an “art” piece I created as an interactive and for fulldome video. I dropped the map and put elements into a very abstract space, hoping to see patterns that could work on both an aesthetic and an intellectual level. Dunno if I succeeded, but I entitled it “Numerology 0.1,” if that gives any sense of how I feel about it.

What a Drag

Recently, commenting on images seems to mean complaining about captions. How sad. But here I go again…

The image above accompanies a press release on a three percent reduction in upper-atmosphere density by the year 2017. The caption for the image reads simply, “The outermost layer of the atmosphere will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade.” Which is all well and good (I mean, the caption is all well and good), except that it leaves one wondering what the satellite is doing in the image. Perhaps the caption could be expanded slightly to read, “The outermost layer of the atmosphere, which extends as high as some satellite orbits, will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade.” Just as a first pass.

A little later in the press release, we find out that “lower density in the thermosphere, which is the highest layer of the atmosphere, would reduce the drag on satellites in low Earth orbit, allowing them to stay airborne longer.” Well, golly, that makes an even better caption: “The outermost layer of the atmosphere will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade, allowing satellites to stay aloft longer.” (Somehow, “airborne” seems inappropriate when applied to a satellite.)

And while I’m discussing language instead of images, what’s up with the headline for this press release? “Scientists Predict Carbon Dioxide Emissions Will Reduce Density of Earth’s Outermost Atmosphere by 2017.” Um, well, actually, emissions have already reduced the density, and they will most likely continue to reduce the denisty long after 2017. Somewhat deceptive.