HeadsUp! Advisors

Steve Hayden
CCO Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide

Dale Herigstad
CCO Possible Worldwide

Bruce Mau
Bruce Mau Design, Massive Change

Alex  McDowell
5D | Immersive Design

Jay Famiglietti
UC Center Hydrologic Modeling

Sylvia Lee
Skoll Foundation for  Global Threats

Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D.
Director, Yale Project on Climate
Change Communication, Yale University

Dr. Michael Oppenheimer
Professor of Geosciences
and International Affairs, Princeton University

Mark Hansen
Professor of Statistics, UCLA

Martin Wattenberg
Google Big Picture
Data Visualization Research Group

Dr. Carlo Buontempo
Senior Climate Scientist, MET Office UK


A Global Design Visualization Competition



Climate change and other global issues are measured in quantities that defy human perception. Although humans have developed tools to detect and measure the quantities and distances that inform global processes, we lag in our ability to broadly and clearly communicate these findings; a thirteen-digit number indicating metric tons in parts per million of an invisible substance (as of this posting: 3689,336,403,245 – currently displayed on the Carbon Counter) is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine. While a deficit of imagination may not seem obvious as a significant obstacle to embracing science, our inability to conceive of the quantities and scale of climate data makes us vulnerable to a biases of imaginability; we are more likely to dismiss an explanation if we can’t imagine it.

Designers, wielding the methods and tools of data visualization, have long confronted this void of imaginability. We take our ability to comprehend time for granted, but both digital and analogue clocks, as well as calendars marking days, weeks, months, years and centuries are graphic abstractions that we have learned to read. “Millennia” may be a familiar term, but it is hard to picture even one, let alone the complication of trends changing at variable rates over several. Data visualization has emerged from the lab as a vibrant design field, marking a fortuitous time for this challenge.

In a commentary on the The Yale forum on Climate Change & the Media, Kent Cavender-Bares laments the politicized discourse about climate change, calling for an initiative answering questions about climate change, “that is viewed as trustworthy to all of us, no matter our ideological and political positions, or our understanding of science.” HeasdUP! aims to broaden the discourse with the creation of trustworthy indicators informed by data.

HeadsUP! recognizes a range of examples from the corporate sponsored weather beacons atop mid-western bank buildings in the 1960’s to landmark art such as the Climate Clock Initiative in San Jose to a variety of desktop widgets, networked mobile apps, and participatory “citizen” science efforts. These initiatives are linked by the understanding that a clear signpost serves to bridge the gap between awareness and participation.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

In 1947, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock, creating the metaphor of nuclear midnight to describe nuclear catastrophe. Purely symbolic (it’s a clock that moves backwards and forwards) the clock has become a sober indicator reflecting our responsibility for holding the clock back – it doesn’t tell us what time it is, it tells us how much time we have left.

Early digital examples are the activist electronic billboards of the late eighties and nineties: An electronic billboard above the Beverly Hills Hard Rock Cafe tracked the shrinking rainforest (-20 hectares every minute) while a billboard in West Los Angeles tracked smoking deaths (+1 every ninety seconds.) Currently, the National Debt Clock on Avenue of the Americas in NYC charts the mounting U.S. debt.

Image of Smoking Deaths Counter

NASA’s Vital Signs widget shows trends and links to detailed graphs. There are a number of initiatives aiming to combine the public sphere with social media: Code for America combines web developers with city officials to address urban issues; In Washington D.C., Apps for Democracy, solicits iPhone and Facebook applications for citizens to engage with their community. The city of San Francisco has made over a hundred data sets available to developers, showcasing their work in a website, DataSF.org. The Worldometer presents world statistics in real time online. The WorldWatch Institute documents trends global trends for their subscription based site, Vital Signs. Games for Change, an annual conference in NYC, convenes activist game designers to promote and study the potential of games for social change. Takemura’s Tangible Earth installations combine real time data with a digital globe to display ongoing earth processes.

The most ambitious and prescient proposal to visualize global data was Buckminster Fuller’s 1962 design for a Geoscope, “a giant, 200-foot diameter… miniature earth — the most accurate global representation of our planet ever to be realized.” Fuller envisioned the Geoscope as a 3D environment connected to an array of computers capable of displaying real-time data as well as animated trends of past data. Fuller wrote, “The consequences of various world plans could be computed and projected. All world data would be dynamically viewable and picturable and relayable by radio to all the world, so that common consideration in a most educated manner of all world problems by all world people would become a practical event.”  In our quest to avoid the unimaginable, HeadsUP! calls on designers to transform global processes into events that are “dynamically viewable, picturable, relayable” and imaginable.