Following Earth Observatory’s Lead

NASA Earth Observatory Images

Are you looking for inspiration? If you ask anyone who visualizes earth and environmental data what their favorite sites are, or where they go for inspiration, odds are they will list NASA’s Earth Observatory in their top 5. (And if it’s not their number 1 site, please tell me what is.)

The Earth Observatory is a great exemplar of what a public portal can be. It combines a number of really cool features like an Image of the Day, a Natural Hazards archive, global maps of data, and an awesome collection of feature articles.

Indeed, there are quite a few image-of-the-some-specified-period sites out there, but none has quite the caché of the Earth Observatory. Of course, no other site has quite the same level of resources behind it either (I’ve heard estimates that Earth Observatory has upwards of 70* people involved), but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from their experience while aspiring to model the site in our own work.

To me, the site is successful because it effectively melds visualizations and text into compelling stories. The visualizations are effective, clear and demonstrative of best practices in almost every case (and I hope to highlight this in future posts), but while the engaging appeal of the visualizations, images and photos may lead readers in, it is up to the text to tell the full story, imparting knowledge upon the reader.

A few years ago, the text of many of the daily images was almost formulaic in nature. And while proscribed formulas rarely lead to effective prose, those entries were still of interest because they covered three elements essential to conveying the story shown by the visualizations.

  1. What event or subject does the visualization relate to?
  2. What does the visualization show, and how can one read and interpret it?
  3. How was the data collected and visualized?

In other words, what is the relevance, story and science behind the visualization.

The key point here is that Earth Observatory follows a traditionally journalistic flow in their narratives. They grab a reader’s attention by starting each story with why they should care about the subject at hand. This is then followed with details on the image and relevant science. A reader is a lot more likely to appreciate and understand an image of flooding if they know how much damage it caused. Unfortunately, scientists who attempt to push their research out into the public realm often take the reverse approach, leading off with the (far more boring) instrument or dataset, leaving the point of the story to the end, in the fashion of a scientific paper.

If you’re interested in visualization generally, developing your skills or learning from the best, I highly recommend subscribing to their weekly email lists.

And if we hope to improve how we share our observations and visualizations of Earth’s mysteries with its citizens, than we would be well advised to follow the Earth Observatory model.

*Update: According to @rsimmon the core team has only 7 members, but they do have a lot of contributors.