'Getting' Gustav

Playing hurricane's data gives viewers insight

MSNBC fortuitously debuted an interactive hurricane tracker last weekend, just as Hurricane Gustav began menacing the Louisiana coast. The tracker was created by Stamen, a San Francisco design firm dedicated to bringing data collections alive in beautiful and informative ways.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Watching Gustav's birth, growth and demise is gripping. You can see the storm slow as it passes over Haiti, dealing the island nation a horrible punch, and then speed up and gather force as it pounds northward toward the Gulf Coast.

This kind of data visualization is growing more common on the Web and is becoming a vital tool for federal officials as they seek insight about everything from storm paths and damage to the spread of epidemics to the effect of policy changes.

For example, Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert, created a nonprofit, Gapminder, solely to better visualize the effects of public health policy. His Trendalyzer (purchased by Google and made publicly available in March) is a wonderfully elegant tool that allows users to plug in an X axis and a Y axis and a variety of elements with different values and then play them over time to see change in the chosen areas of investigation -- say, fertility rate (number of children per woman) and life expectancy. Running the numbers for all the countries of the world from 1950 (or whenever they began keeping good statistics) until 2003, quickly explodes the myth that large families and short lives still define the large swath of countries we once knew as the Third World.

Watching Bangladesh suddenly spurt into the small family/high life expectancy portion of the graph as mothers promote family planning in the 1980s is heartening, exciting and mind-bending all at once. Watching the African countries plummet out of the worldwide trend toward longer lives as the AIDS crisis hits in the 1990s is sobering and tragic.

The Brookings Institute is using yet another data visualization tool to model the effects of different policy options on a hypothetical influenza epidemic.

Data visualization also is a way to use technology to amplify human intelligence. Using the Trendalyzer, Stamen's hurricane tracker and other visualizations, anyone can choose the variables and play out history. Armed with information, government officials and citizens can make better decisions. Armed with visualized statistics, government can ensure that many who were closed out of the discussion by their inaptitude for reading statistics can have the same insights as the statistically fluent.

What had been inscrutable ciphers in columns has become palpable and real. More important, data has become manipulable, enabling policymakers, emergency planners, military strategists, public health officials and politicians to better understand the consequences of their decisions or failure to take action.

State of the USA, a nascent nonprofit, seeks to use data visualization not only to explain and predict, but to enable Americans hold politicians and policymakers accountable by letting them see over time the effect of governmental interventions. The group seeks no less than to generate a report card on the health of the country by assembling visualizations of the data on education, the economy, the environment, health, employment, national security and a number of other issues. It's not hard to imagine such a report becoming a, or even the, key touch point for political campaigns.