ASHEVILLE — In a conference room in Rhoades Robinson Hall, on the University of North Carolina Asheville campus, a group of people watches a giant screen.
On the display is a computer model of a community along the Intercoastal Waterway near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Suddenly the blue waters begin to rise and overflow the waterway’s banks. Streets are submerged, so are yards and houses. Soon, only the rooftops are visible.
“Wow,” exclaims someone at the table, “and that was a category two hurricane with only minimal sea level rise?”
The images on the screen are one of the latest creations from the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center. The goal of the organization is to portray data in a way that helps people make decisions in certain situations. The best way to do that is to create images that visualize the worst in hopes of achieving the best.
“What we’re really trying to do is get away from people connecting to data to connect with things they care about," explains Jim Fox, Director of NEMAC. “If they can see their home, their neighborhood, their crops they care about for their livelihood, that’s where they‘re going to start to pay attention. Now if we can attach data to that for visualization, that’s the second step. But what we really want to do is make meaning out of that.”
Making data meaningful is the goal of the climate scientists, designers, graphic artists and communicators at NEMAC. Essentially, NEMAC is an aggregator of massive amounts of data. It’s not that NEMAC is collecting and storing the data it utilizes for the programs and visualizations it creates. NEMAC’s programs hit the web servers of government agencies, which means all of the information used in their computer models is current. All of that data is used to create not only models, but also narratives.
“I think that using a narrative is more engaging to the community," explains Sarah Gibson, a senior editor who writes stories to illustrate what is shown in the data and graphic images. “We want to reach out to people who aren’t in the sciences as well as those who are policy makers, to show that land use decisions and climate change have a human element and a direct impact on the community. If it is done right, our presentations catch your attention and engage you in a way that is completely different than just looking at a graph.”
One estimate puts the amount of information accessed by NEMAC at petabytes of data. And one petabyte is enough information for 58,000 movies. NEMAC accesses the data from more than 60 federal agencies covering topics such as forest cover, the types of trees and vegetation growing in an area, urbanization, farmland, and flood and drought data. NEMAC then takes the data and creates tools to make sense of it, visualize it and make it usable.
“There are different sides to what we do,” says Steve Ansari, Project Manager of the Climate.gov website, which is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We want to make the data accessible to users so they can download the information, but we also want to tell the story and help the data be relevant for those who have to make decisions from it.”
The data is also layered, which means multiple topics such as drought and crop reports can be explored through the same interface. Nina Hall, the Lead Science Editor at NEMAC, shows what can be done with a basic map of the United States.
“If I start with this map, I can click an icon to turn on the current drought level, which is provided by NOAA,” Hall explains as she moves the mouse and an icon around on the screen. Various shades of red appear across the map.
“If I want to see what the colors mean I click on the legend and then I can click on this icon to turn on the cropland layer to see what is growing where in the country,” Hall explains as she continues to click on icons all around the map. “I can also slide a transparency bar, which will show drought behind the crop land layer, so on one map I can learn and understand a great deal of information when it is all brought together.”
NEMAC’S work is showcased in the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, the centerpiece of the federal government's efforts to adapt the nation to climate change. But decision makers in all levels of government and private industry use their products to study land use, agriculture and urban planning.
“It all starts when you ask people what they care about and then show them the decisions they’ve made based on the reality they have known,” explains Fox. “But then you need to show them the changes that are coming to that reality. And if you can start seeing these changes, you can ask, are you willing to do things differently? Because the world is changing."
NEMAC helps data make an emotional connection with people. In the future, NEMAC’s staff hopes to give people prior warning so that decisions can be made before there is an emergency, allowing time for people to be proactive and safe.