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Here | Now | Look | See

Still from "Here: the natural state of Alberta" showing the Foothills Fescue grass subregion

Created for my MFA thesis, Here | Now | Look | See: Information visualizations of recent climate records in Alberta is a research project that explores methods for designing information visualizations about complex topics like climate change. The visualizations feature a dataset provided by Dr. Stefan W. Kienzle, Associate Professor of Hydrology and GIS at the University of Lethbridge, made up of nearly 5 million observed climate records between 1950 and 2010 for 6,834 locations across Alberta. 

* this project has since been turned into a website: albertaclimaterecords.com *

The design of the visualizations focused on three areas of consideration:

  1. Improve the viewer’s ability to decode the visual representations of the data through narrative structure.
  2. Provide holistic comprehension of the data, merging scientific explanation with contextual significance and relatability.
  3. Minimize biases in how the data is presented and viewed through neutral tone and design.

The main narrative in Here | Now | Look | See is based on breaking down the meaning of each of these keywords (here, now, look, and see) in connection with the climate data. Each stage of the narrative provides information that the audience carries forward to the next, allowing for the totality of information to be complex, but the delivery to be incremental, building comprehension gradually. Along with creating visualizations of Dr. Kienzle's climate data, supplementary visualizations of related data provide additional information and context to create a more comprehensive narrative.

Explore the Project:

  1. Here: the natural state of Alberta
  2. Now: an accumulation of the past
  3. Look: the record of change in Alberta
  4. See: effects of a changing climate
  5. Climate Change in Alberta? A Recent History of Climate Trends in Our Backyards
  6. The Exhibition
  7. Tools and Thanks
Still from "Here: the natural state of Alberta" showing the Dry Mixed grass subregion
Still from "Here: the natural state of Alberta" showing the Dry Mixed grass subregion

Here: the natural state of Alberta

The first visualization in the Here | Now | Look | See series focuses on building a foundational knowledge of the natural features in Alberta. Working from the text Natural Regions and Subregions of Alberta (2006) by the Natural Regions Committee, I charted eight key features for each of the six natural regions and the twenty-one subregions. This included their size, mean temperature in the warmest month, mean temperature in the coldest month, vegetation, terrain, wetlands and open water, land uses, as well as a feature distinctive to that area. These features were chosen based on the background information that is needed to better understand the environmental impacts of climate change, which is displayed in the fourth visualization in this series. Each feature was then graphically coded as rings around the title of the region to create twenty-one unique mandalas.

The graphic coding for each ring reflects the data it represents: precipitation, temperature, vegetation, and physiography:

  • The precipitation ring is encoded as raindrops, each representing 5mm. The display of quantity references the method of measuring precipitation, in bucket-like devices at the climate stations.
  • The temperature ring references the design of thermometers, where 0 is in the middle and positive temperatures are above, and negative temperatures below.
  • The vegetation ring displays the main vegetation types for each area as illustrations. Given that specific tree and grass types are not common knowledge, having the visual reference was critical to linking the information to what it represents.
  • Finally the physiography of the landscape is a simple reference to the description of the land given by the reference author, as well as the elevation range. The rotation of the two suggests the diversity of the landscape within this range, rather than a static uniformity.
Still from 'Now: an accumulation of the past'
Still from 'Now: an accumulation of the past'

Now: an accumulation of the past

This visualization focuses on providing context and suggesting significance for the quantity of time that the climate data represents. Since the experience of time is relative to our own observations, a narrative was created comparing the duration of sixty years to the history of human experience in Alberta, from the first evidence of human activity 14,014 years ago, to the first known European 260 years ago, to the current average Canadian lifespan of 80 years.

The design concept went through several iterations and arrived at this one due to how the data (the different periods of time) is represented as widths of images (or the pink block of colour for sixty years) that adjust with the display size. The widths of each section have been mathematically determined so that sixty years shifts in proportion to where you are in the timeline.  Incorporating transitions became particularly important in maintaining the users orientation while also maximizing the width of the display as the total length of time for each stage.

Although this visualization walks the line of objectivity the most due to its implicit reference to anthropological land use and climate change, I felt it was important to show that while 60 years might seem like a long time for change to occur, it is minute compared to our total history in the area.

still from Look

Look: the record of change in Alberta

The third visualization in this series is the first opportunity for the audience to look at the climate data itself. Viewed in the order I’ve intended, the audience enters this visualization with an understanding of the diversity in Alberta’s landscape and the time scale of the data. The visualization begins with a short introductory video explaining the data and its source. It then arrives on a map of Alberta showing the total trend changes for one of the indices, visualized as colour values for each 10km2 location across Alberta.

The design of this piece facilitates a broad overview of the trend analysis conducted by Dr. Kienzle. Each index is given a unique colour range, which was chosen based on the qualities of the data being represented (ie green for growing season, warm colors for heat waves and days over 25C, and cool colours for the cold indices). Since the colour ranges needed to show both increasing days and decreasing days, an opposite colour was required that had the same saturation and lightness. In doing so, similar degrees of change in both directions would be represented with the same optical perception of value.

The value of total change of an index’s trend corresponds to a color value on the range. The resulting colours are then assigned to their grid locations on a map of Alberta. As each location has different amounts of change, a mosaic is created of different values of change across the province. The relationships in the data that this visualization method is able to show include nominal comparison, deviation, and distribution as they relate to different areas of Alberta as a whole. As the user mouses over the map, the visualizations on the right update for each location. Double clicking or scrolling allows the user to zoom into the map to an area of interest, perhaps where they live or enjoy recreational activities.

See: effects of a changing climate

The final visualization in this series extends the story of the changing climate trends to show the impacts that scientists have observed certain changes to cause. The impacts that are visualized in this interactive are based on the paper Climate Change Impacts On Canada's Prairie Provinces: A Summary of Our State of Knowledge (2009), which was recommended to me by Dr. Kienzle for background research. As I read the paper, it was evident that initial effects from temperature changes set off other changes, which set off others, all compounding to impacts with multiple sources cause them. To see how the interconnectedness of the causes and effects added together, I devised a visualization method to map the network with nodes for each level of impact.

Starting with the trend changes in temperature indices, which were indicated in the paper and further supported by Dr. Kienzle’s climate data (fewer frost days, more growing season days), each of the effects of these changes are given a ring of color that correlates with each of its causes. The rings compound as multiple causes contribute to each effect .

The result is a complex web that requires the audience to study the visualization closely to follow the chain of effects. I believe it is in the complexity of this graphic that that point is best made. Tools for reading the graphic are given at the side, so that they can decode the meaning of the rings and the types of effects. Reflecting on the graphical system I chose to visually represent the paper, while the links between the causes and effects were directly pulled from the paper, the compounding of the rings are my addition to illustrate the underlying network present in the information. Consultation with Stefan confirmed that this was a fair assessment and representation.

This visualization extends the story of the climate data from Dr. Kienzle with the environmental impacts observed by Canada’s scientific community. It also builds on the background information on environmental features in the province provided by the first piece in the series, Here: the natural state of Alberta. The resulting visualization would be considered a starting point for discussing answers to questions like: how does a longer growing season effect Alberta? Or isn’t fewer days under -25°C a good thing?

Still from Thesis Project
Created with Processing, Unfolding Maps Library, and Stamen's Toner map

Climate Change in Alberta? A Recent History of Climate Trends in Our Backyards

This interactive visualization shows yearly variability, climate trends, and total amount of change of 6 climate indices for all 6,834 grid locations across Alberta. The details to be discovered are as vast as the dataset. Every data point is made accessible through this interactive.

It was realized early on that the geospatial distribution of the climate data offered a unique opportunity to give all Albertans access to climate data specific to their local area. To expand on the idea of comprehensively representing the selected data set, the visualization was designed to provide the full details of the climate data for each 10km2 location. To manage the large scope of information, I used the organizational method from Ben Shniederman’s Information Seeking Mantra: overview first, zoom and filter, then details on demand. This breakdown formed a basic narrative through which to progressively introduce features of the data in increasing detail.

The visualization first steps the user through selecting a location to look at, and then providing one climate index for the chosen location. In this simple frame, the user can digest the basics of the visualization. First the trend and variability line, and to the right the amount of change. As the user becomes familiar with the interface, they begin to add other climate indices to the visualization, seeing how each one plots on the scale in comparison with the others.

Exhibition

An exhibition of the work took place from May 9th to May 15th, 2014 at The Penny Building Gallery in Lethbridge, Alberta. The intention of the exhibition was to provide an opportunity for people in the area to have access to the climate data that indicates change in ‘their backyard.’

Dr. Stefan Kienzle (second from left) in conversation with exhibition visitors .
Dr. Stefan Kienzle (second from left) in conversation with exhibition visitors .

Toolkit:

For project support and mentorship, HUGE thank-yous to:

My MFA supervisor, Leanne Elias

Graduate committee members Dana Cooley, Emily Luce, and Daniela Sirbu

My collaborative partner Dr. Stefan Kienzle, Professor of Geography

Plinth artists Glen MacKinnon and Tony

Mom, Dad, and Jess