Climate change is a notoriously hard topic to communicate, as it is a trend over time rather than a specific event in time and space. Organizations such as NASA, NOAA, and the IPCC offer the best authoritative data on climate resilience. But just because the information is out there doesn’t mean people will use it.
David González, Chief Technology Officer at Vizzuality, a data visualization company involved in the former White House Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness (PREP), firmly believes in the importance of thinking about engagement. “Data can’t just be available and accessible—it has to be used,” he says.
Established in September 2016, PREP came together to create a platform for engagement so international and national city planners, urban developers, and policy makers can make informed decisions on issues relating to climate change.
Data visualizations have been widely used by climate scientists and communicators to depict climate change futures and to bridge the gap between what may seem an abstract concept and everyday experience, making clearer its local and individual relevance.
González founded Vizzuality back in 2009 with a vision of bringing together science, policy and citizenship through design and technology. At the time, scientists were producing large amounts of relevant data, but there was a gap in understanding.
As CTO, he oversees business and project development. He sets the technical direction for the company, ensuring each project will make a difference by enabling a creative and innovative use of technology.
According to a poll earlier this year by The Hill, seventy percent of Americans believe that climate change is real; however, action on climate change continues to rank close to the bottom of priorities compared with other major voting issues such as the economy or foreign policy. Experts argue the reason for the disconnect between belief and action lies in the way individuals process risk.
By using technology in innovative ways, data visualization can make it easier for people to view and use the data to gain new insights, regardless of their direct or indirect involvement with climate change.
PREP evolved from of the Obama Administration’s 2014’s Climate Data Initiative, which intended to make the vast holdings of data that the federal government collects and generates more accessible to public help with decision-making and natural resource management.
There are more 160,000 data sets readily available on the website just by clicking on the “climate” tab—and there are hundreds of tabs available.
The public-private partnership intends to take the Climate Data Initiative a step further by curating those datasets and giving a bit more context to individual locations and cities, which might have specific concerns.
“Because of the opportunity mainly coming from satellite visibility or from drones and sensors, there’s also advancements in computing technology for big data which makes it easy to turn it into meaningful data,” Gonzalez says. At the moment, the data is only available on a national and global scale and primarily comes from the government or other resource organizations.
Ashley Jablow, Vice President of Development and Impact at Vizzuality, is helping the company establish a greater physical presence across the United States from their office in Washington D.C.
“Anything you can do to connect policy makers and citizens, making sure people can speak the same language or at least are using the same vocabulary, is a win,” she says.
Vizzuality is known for releasing open data on the web through beautifully designed, interactive, usable applications and tools.
“We’re a mission-driven company,” Jablow says. “And want to track the impact of things we create.”
Now based in Madrid, Spain, González consistently sees social justice opportunities to build off international citizens’ concerns by creating platforms that force interdisciplinary engagement.
He believes these types of relationships are essential for exposure and visibility—exercising the idea that consistent collaboration will help keep climate change a top priority.
“The level of complexity that is needed for these types of projects is so vast,” González says, “You have civil organizations with ideas and drive and guts to work on politically uncomfortable issues. Then you have governments who produce most of the data but have a hard time putting it out there.”
For instance, Vizzuality just recently established Trase, a platform that traces the paths of commodities around the world, with the help of the Stockholm Environment Institute.
By bringing transparency into commodity supply chains, Trase aims to help companies, financial institutions and governments understand and address the social and environmental impacts associated with their supply chains.
“It’s a complicated conversation,” Jablow says. “Designers and developers try to visualize the conversation by moving from left to right to see [for example] where does soy begin? From import to export, ports to destinations, we’re helping consumers understand where soy in their soy-milk comes from through physical representation of their product’s course.”
Vizzuality also frequently collaborates with the World Resources Institute (WRI), another partner in PREP. Together they created the Global Forest Watch, a sophisticated, responsive web-mapping application that puts near real-time data at your fingertips. Users can find out if protected areas are conserving forests, explore key trends in different countries or see where trees were lost in the last week.
“When cities are planning for the effects on climate change, it’s a pretty challenging task,” says Frank Gassert, the Data Impact Lead at the WRI. He said WRI seeks to promote open data, data visualization, and integrity across their programs. He also works to identify and develop new opportunities to use data to promote environmental sustainability and economic wellbeing.
“It requires foundational knowledge of what’s happening in the city and on information how the climate is expected to change – precipitation, potential flooding, combatting record high temperatures that may influence electrical power grids,” Gassert says.
Since the causes of climate change are not immediately visible and their impacts are felt across large geographical areas over long periods of time, he argues that the combination of not being able to attribute any one specific weather event to climate change along with the uncertainty inherent in climate projections presents a challenge to make it an immediate risk in most people’s minds.
Gassert advocates for communication strategies that rely on localized climate projections, which can benefit by contextualizing climate change within uncertainty and risk as opposed to debates about the accuracy of the science.
PREP is still in its beta, but is engaging small groups of communities in Brazil, Sonoma, and Washington State. Their main goal is to get something online before the end of the Obama Administration.
Vizzuality’s staff acknowledge that this is a transitional period between administrations, so change is to be expected.
“There’s a lot of consensus that climate change is an important issue that requires action,” Jablow says, “There are obstacles in place, but like water going down babbling brook, water has to travel around stones.”
González says he sees an opportunity for validation of their mission. “It makes us think that what we do is really important,” González says confidently. “Maybe it will be a driver for civil organizations not putting enough effort or funding into climate change communication to put in more. Maybe it will give other countries a chance to react.”