August 24, 2015

Global Ocean Surface Waves, Visualized

Here is an exquisite vizualization of ocean surface waves by Cameron Beccario @cambecc. The animation below is just one visualization possible with his tool, Earth. Visit to play with wind, current and temperature data. Scroll down to read more about Earth.

The color scale shows the peak wave period (time between crests) for ocean swells. Longest period waves (up to 25 seconds) are brighter cyan, and chopy, short period waves approach black. The animation on top is a representation of the surface wave vector field,” and not an animation of actual surface waves.

Wave conditions (updated every 3 hours). Scroll down to see more.

Earth: an Excellent Example of Good Design

Earth is an excellent example of how good design can produce visualizations that engage a public audience and do a better job of representing data. A good data visualization begins by formulating the task as a Design Problem. The design problem that Earth sets out to solve might be worded like this:

Represent near real-time global weather forecast in an accurate yet holistic way that captures geographical context.”

Earth is on view now through Fall 2015 at Point.B Studio in Port Orford, Oregon, as part of the exhibition, Gegenshein.

You might add and is visually successful as fine art,” since one of Baccario’s intended uses of Earth is to generate fine art prints and other materials for exhibition. But a really good design can produce museum quality work in any case, even if it has a functional purpose.

Beccario decided that what was required was not a single visualization but a tool to generate visualizations of a choice of datasets from a variety of perspectives. The design of the resulting tool, Earth, flows from that requirement. It uses a visually efficient, limited, and unified design language and intuitive interface to allow users to display a very large range of possible visualizations.

Relief map of the moon, color shaded, with rainbow scale. (Image credit: NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center/DLR/ASU.) See Drew Skau’s blog post: Dear NASA: No More Rainbow Color Scales, Please”

One small component of that design language is the carefully constructed set of color scales. Color scales are often an afterthought in scientific visualizations, often relying on default rainbow” scales. These naïve color scales can cause intelligibility problems and bias the interpretation of the data. For example, the colors in the standard rainbow scale are not of equal perceived brightness; therefore some bands of information can be perceived as more important than they are, and we can perceive boundaries between color bands that are not necessarily there in the data.1 Beccario designed more perceptually relevant color scales with the help of the online tool ColorBrewer. (There are many other similar tools out there. See also New York Times’ designer Gregor Aischs excellent article on color scales.) Beccario’s color scale for wave periods is a perceptually even brightness gradient of a single hue (cyan), so any boundaries we see in the map are real boundaries, an not artifacts of the color scale.

Beccario's color scale for wave period is a perceptually linear brightness gradient of a single hue.Beccario's color scale for wave period is a perceptually linear brightness gradient of a single hue.

I encourage everyone, including scientists, to explore Cameron Beccario’s tool Earth at their leisure, to discover the difference good design can make in data visualization.

Watch Beccario talk about his design process for Earth at the Graphical Web 2014 conference:

  1. Drew Skau, Dear NASA: No More Rainbow Color Scales, Please.” blog post, Visually.

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