We live in an age of change. Data collection has gone exponential, so much so that more information was collected in the last few years than was recorded in all of human history. At the same time, our world is undergoing consequential, potentially irreversible changes as climate change takes hold in an era of unreserved human impact on earth systems.
Five years ago, I saw how data could show hints of these changes, helping people to understand the scale and significance of impact that our activity is having on our children's futures. Johan Rockström, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, was describing waterways in the sky through the forests of Amazonia, and how deforestation is having the unintended consequence of drought in São Paulo. His speech had the power of a combined narrative: one that brings the data of the world to bear on the key issues of our time. He was connecting the dots, using fact, empathy and data all at once.
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Inspired by that approach, we at the Carnegie Mellon CREATE Lab have partnered with the World Economic Forum to collect global visual information sources under one open-data, open-source umbrella. We asked: could world experts on nutrition, pandemics, climate change, deforestation, refugees demonstrate actual change over the last few decades with the help of massive spatio-temporal visualizations? The project marries together the fact-based narratives of experts with visually compelling images – ones that break through every language and culture barrier, forging common ground across diverse viewpoints, helping to create the sense of unity we need to have meaningful discourse about how to steward our future more meaningfully.
The project grew quickly, starting with just a few data sets, including every satellite image LANDSAT ever took of the Earth’s surface, thanks to Nasa and Google, and then gradually including massive deforestation analysis data thanks to Matt Hansen at the University of Maryland. Before long, we had dozens of layers. At World Economic Forum summits, world leaders were hungry for a new way to understand planetary-scale changes. They walked up afterwards and zoomed into their country, eager to learn more about their circumstances. Some were surprised when they discovered their cities would be underwater in a world 4 degrees warmer than the present. They asked for copies of the data interface, so they could share it with ministers, teachers and citizens.
Over the past few years we have developed an interactive, web-based system that can support large spatial and temporal data sets of any kind: flows, dotmaps, color images, satellite renderings. In each case, the data comes to us courtesy of close collaboration with partners who have created, peer-reviewed and published the data, like the University of Oxford, Harvard, the United States Geological Survey, UNHCR and many, others. They see value in sharing data openly on a platform that is not for profit and dedicated explicitly to marrying their information to narratives generated by our global expert body. While some tell stories of decline, other demonstrate the power in our hands to effect change.
Computers and mobile phones have become ever more capable at hosting and serving such data. So this year, we have hit a tipping point, when we are now able, for the first time, to release our entire system, EarthTime, to the entire world for interactive exploration, learning and sharing.
Thanks to close collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, we have developed an interactive system that enables the public to explore these vast data sets, and to select and witness experts guiding us through topics of great importance to all of us.
Just after Earth Day, we launch the first EarthTime narratives and experiences, all available globally, and featuring critical stories of planetary change and its societal ramifications. We believe that this visual organization of information can help us make our planet the very best place it can be for generations to come.
You can explore the EarthTime tool here.