Earth Wind Map /// Reflecting on the art of data visualization

Windmap

There has recently been sufficient hype around the Earth Wind Map, a map that was inspired by the US Wind Map I covered back in 2012. The Earth Wind Map, built by Cameron Beccario (@cambecc) visualizes data from the US weather service, National Centers for Environmental Prediction and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The map uses a similar JavaScript code to visualize movements of wind using dots dragging in the direction of the wind, leaving a tail that slowly disappears. The movements are supplemented with colours and densities of flowing dots which seem to be related to wind speed (any clarification on this?).

Check out my critique below, and take a look at the map.

Link: http://earth.nullschool.net

Critique: This, as with the US Wind Map, are extremely visually appealing (at least to me). What really catches the eye is the animation – it is undulating and extremely complex, but repetitive. It’s like an animated GIF, (which have also gained immense popularity lately) or a Vine, where an image repeats over and over, and in each repetition, the viewer is able to catch something new. There is something about a short, repetitive animation that draws you in, almost hypnotically.

The difference between this map and GIFs/Vines is that there is an additional layer of knowledge to be had from the image. The map, in its flowing complexity, seems to be holding some kind of secret. As with many data visualizations, there is a promise of enlightenment.

However, this is where things get sticky. As with other maps, I am a bit confused by the usefulness of such a complex map, and the motive of the developer. While I support the idea of using maps and data visualization as not necessarily having a strict usage, I wonder then why there is such a scientific patina on these visualizations. It almost seems like the developer wants the map to embody a kind of objective reality (illuminated through data). This is a kind of digitally-enabled hyper-realism of the physical environment through abstraction and symbolic representation. Sounds like a convoluted oxymoron.

Some random thoughts – I see this more as art than science, if I want to make the distinction. The issue is that the map cannot (should not?) be used for accurate wind monitoring, weather reporting or the like (as the developer himself notes). So why the adherence to the scientific grid? or the scientific projection system? The answer to this is most likely convenience as projections and global representations have been encoded, and can be quickly plugged into an app as need be. This practice and these codes are the material for digital artistic production (which is, in many ways, disruptive/critical/radical).

The use of commonly understood scientific symbolism creates an cauldron of popular acceptance, scientific prediction and a kind of illusion of power. There is an odd dynamic here where the viewer perhaps feel empowered to see patterns in winds, validated through the symbolism of the grid/globe/projection/scientific units, but not sufficiently empowered to act on those patterns. Perhaps people delight in the performance, or in the ability/power of understanding the natural world in a deeper manner. Or, perhaps people merely delight in the undulating flow.

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