Making Big Data Bigger: Sleeker Science to Inspire Water Pollution Solutions

September 11, 2015 | 2:26 pm
Marcia DeLonge
Former Contributor

We live in an era of big data, where anyone with access to a computer has loads of scientific treasures at their fingertips. Yet all too often, these amazing resources find themselves with oh-so-small audiences. I know, I know… not everyone gets as excited about data as I do. But, with the keys to many of our biggest challenges out there to discover, we need more hands on deck.

Science to stories and solutions

Getting more people more excited about data probably means making it look a little less like… err… data. But, unfortunately, taking big data and translating it to digestible stories that can inspire solutions isn’t many people’s cup of tea. Surely there are folks up for this task, but where can they be found?

Well, the US Geological Survey (USGS), US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Blue Legacy International – all of which have made significant investments into grappling with the stubborn, pervasive, and downright nasty issue of high nutrient loads in precious water resources (pollution of our lakes and oceans, affecting our food, water, and economies) – recently asked this question. To answer it, they hosted a competition with this challenge: use available government data to develop compelling and informative visualizations capable of reaching the public. And guess what?

Creative minds came through.

Telling the tale of Lake Erie and algal blooms

The winning entry, “A resource out of place: the story of phosphorus, Lake Erie, and toxic algal blooms” (created by Eric Roy, Matthew Seibert, and Benjamin Wellington of Landscape Metrics) asks us to consider looking at an age-old problem in a new way—and they present the data in just the right way to actually provide a shot at doing that.

Credit: Landscape Metrics/2015 Visualizing Nutrients Challenge

Screenshot of the winning entry from a recent data visualization challenge hosted by USGS, EPA, and Blue Legacy International: “A resource out of place: the story of phosphorus, Lake Erie, and toxic algal blooms”. (Graphic: Landscape Metrics/2015 Visualizing Nutrients Challenge)

In just 3 minutes and 4 seconds, an enthralling video whisks you into a journey packed with an informative narrative and stunning imagery, all powered by strong scientific data. The magic is that this visualization provides both the top headlines (for example, that in 2011 contamination that crippled a $10 billion tourist industry, and that a 2014 bloom led to a tap water ban that affected 500,000 Ohioans) and the connection to critical science (maps of Lake Erie, its surrounding watersheds, and key monitoring stations; figures revealing the changing Ohio landscape, the appearance of cyanobacteria, and the quantity of valuable nutrients lost through waterways). This video quickly introduces the audience to the issue before inviting the newly enlightened crowd to explore the interactive visualization—the real star of the show—where you can play with the data (click the Interactive Visualization tab) to discover the sheer magnitude of the datasets and issues at your own pace.

Time for a paradigm shift? It’s not pollution – it’s a resource out of place

In addition to developing a compelling and highly informative product, this team went a step further. They let you experience the data not just in the highly scientific units of “kg P” (leaving streams), but also in two units that are more tangible: “bushels of corn wasted” and “phosphorus fertilizers dollars wasted.” This brilliant framing is what helps us to really see the solution that is hiding in the problem, which is exactly what is needed to motive and inspire trouble-shooters.

Reflections and the road forward

As Niels Bohr, famous physicist, once said, “Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.” This insight begs a big question—if the solutions are out there for us to find, how can we nudge the change in thinking that will reveal them? In my view, harnessing big data, bright ideas, modern technology, and the art of storytelling is the right track. The big question is, how do we encourage more of this?

And, with that, I’ll leave you with a few questions I asked of Scientific Director of Landscape Metrics, Dr. Eric Roy:

  1. What inspired you and your team at Landscape Metrics to take on this challenge?

Our goal with Landscape Metrics is to use visualization to tell great stories using scientific data. As a scientist, I am very passionate about both phosphorus and water quality. I’ve studied phosphorus in the Lake Erie region, coastal Louisiana, and most recently on farms in the Brazilian Amazon. I cringe a bit when I hear phosphorus described as a “contaminant.” This is really the stuff of life! It’s in our DNA, our bones, and our food. And we are mining finite supplies of phosphate rock at an alarming rate to get it. Meanwhile, we are putting loads of it right where we don’t need it—in water bodies where it can cause toxic algal blooms. So this challenge by the USGS, EPA, and Blue Legacy International focused on an issue near and dear to me. Luckily, I work with Ben and Matt, who are excellent designers well versed in environmental issues. This was a perfect opportunity for us to showcase our talents and create something that we hope inspires others. We all contributed equally to the final product.

  1. Did you learn anything unexpected as you created this visualization?

It’s funny. I have been thinking about phosphorus as a “resource out of place” for years. But as we worked with the data and created this visualization, I gained a better appreciation of just how true this is in the context of Lake Erie. I had the sense that the equivalent bushels of corn or fertilizer dollars lost as phosphorus loaded to Lake Erie would be big numbers. But how big? It turns out it’s in the ballpark of 100 million bushels of corn or $10-30 million dollars per year!

  1. How can we encourage more scientists to go the extra mile to translate their work into stories that can reach the public good?

I think there is a growing awareness that our traditional forms of science communication are very limited. Technical journal articles (even those that are relatively very well-cited) only reach a tiny portion of the population. This is troubling for those of us who fell in love with science because we wanted to not only satiate our own curiosity, but to also help make a better world. Time and time again, in discussions with colleagues about scientific research, I’ve heard the phrase, “What’s the story?” Scientists are story tellers—why not focus on that part of our craft more explicitly? Great stories need more than numbers and text—they need to be interactive and capture peoples’ imaginations. There has been a lot of focus in recent decades on bridging the disciplinary divide between the natural and social sciences, which I think is wonderful. We also need to focus on mending the rifts that exist among the sciences, design, and art. The creative storytelling that could result is in the public’s interest (they are paying for much of this science after all) and I think it can help take our science to the next level as well. Forming more interdisciplinary collaborative spaces where scientific storytelling is front and center in the academic, government, and nonprofit realms would be a great step forward.

P.S. There’s more where that came from…

  • Check out other competition entries that present other outstanding visualizations of nutrient related water quality problems here.
  • And don’t miss Landscape Metric’s other fantastic visualizations here.