Monday, May 3, 2010

Visualizing the Gulf Oil Spill

In order to help emergency response and the public to understand the extent of the current Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, several visualization researchers and designers have published useful visualizations.

NASA’s Aqua satellite supplied this image of the Gulf Coast oil slick resulting from the explosion & sinking of the Deepwater Horizon platform.  It was captured with the “MODIS” (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument, and shows the oil as it follows the gulf currents across the region.

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[click for original NASA posting and high resolution image]

NASA explains why a conventional photograph would not allow us to see the oil spill as clearly as this MODIS image:

“The oil slick may be particularly obvious because it is occurring in the sunglint area, where the mirror-like reflection of the Sun off the water gives the Gulf of Mexico a washed-out look. Oil slicks are notoriously difficult to spot in natural-color (photo-like) satellite imagery because a thin sheen of oil only slightly darkens the already dark blue background of the ocean. Under unique viewing conditions, oil slicks can become visible in photo-like images, but usually, radar imagery is needed to clearly see a spill from space.”

CNN presents an interactive timeline of the oil slick movements, as does the NY Times. The NY Times animation includes narrative of events directly on the map, as well as the use of dotted borders to encode uncertainty when showing predictions of spill extent. Both could be improved with visual encodings indicating sensitive geographical regions, such as bird sanctuaries, oyster beds, tourist beaches, etc.  However, it is impressive how quickly the media are able to provide useful visualizations to the public – the flexibility of the medium will allow these designs to be improved as the story develops.

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CNN Animation: broad context, few narrations

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NY Times Animation: closer context, annotations and prediction

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