Visualizing Sandy: An Interview with Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg

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Wind Map by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg
 
All the way in blissfully sunny Los Angeles during the throes of Hurricane Sandy, I watched with growing anxiety as friends and family rode out the storm. I found myself unsatisfied by personal accounts of empty supermarket shelves and mass media coverage of FEMA efforts and felt I needed better awareness of what was happening in empirical, but also meaningful terms. As it turns out, I wasn't alone — cue the Wind Project, from artists Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg. Wattenberg, trained as a mathematician, is also known for his work on number of classic digital art projects like the Shape of Song, The Apartment, and Whitney Artport's Idea Line, as well as Rhizome's StarryNight. Collaborating with Viégas since 2003, they have served as principles at the IBM Visual Communication Lab, where they initiated the "Many Eyes" project, a user-generated forum for uploading data and creating visualizations through conversation and collaboration, in the hopes of fostering a more social and democratic style of data analysis. Other past projects span from visualizations of Google Image discrepancies of fine art masterpieces to chat histories to baby names. Viégas and Wattenberg currently work with Google's "Big Picture" Data Group in Cambridge, MA and maintain their own practice as Flowing Media, Inc. 
 
Their latest project is "a living portrait of the wind currents over the United States" using data pulled hourly from the National Digital Forecast Database. The Wind Project site saw a strong spike in visitors in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, as dumbfounded viewers watched the complex choreography of curling, comet-like wind lines circling the eastern seaboard. Though I'm not sure it did much to calm my nerves, the image from landfall — October 29th, 2012 — has become an instant visualization classic. I recently spoke with Viégas and Wattenberg over email about the project and its impact on our experience of Sandy:
 
Were you surprised by the reaction to the wind map in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy?  What do you think it is about that specific visualization that really captured people's awe but also sense of dread?
 
We were impressed, but not totally surprised: Hurricane Isaac was kind of a warm-up storm, and we saw a lot of interest then. One big difference was this time we were in the path of the storm. In fact, it's a minor miracle that our data center (that is, one old computer) in Massachusetts had power the entire time.
 
An accident of design is that, because the map doesn't show the ocean, the hurricane only gradually emerged as it made landfall, which might have made it seem all the more ominous!
 
As the project has gone on, you've added a gallery that includes stills from the map on particularly eventful days (October 30, 2012 being the most recent example).  Do you have any interest in the way these images will live on beyond their live updates, as some kind of an archive?
 
Absolutely. To really appreciate the patterns, you have to see more than one day and understand the amazing diversity of the wind. That's why we launched with a gallery of historical examples. Another way to archive images is as prints, which are available on Point.B.
 
The map really felt like a discovery, even though it's populated with data that's been publicly available from the National Weather Service for years. I've found myself checking back in because I feel as though it allows me to see what's coming next, or see some kind of larger pattern I miss from more orthodox weather reports.  Have you found others have similar experiences? I noticed your website cautions against using the map to fly a plane, sail a boat, or fight wildfires...
 
Yes, people definitely keep coming back, and many have written us about how they're using it see broader patterns. That disclaimer came out of actual exchanges with sailors, surfers, and firefighters. One recent email that made us smile let us know that it's being used to track butterfly migrations.
 
Wind Map on Oct 29, 2012
 
How did you two make decisions about how to aesthetically represent weather patterns in this project? One of the first things that draws you in is the graphic contrast of the black and white and how strangely lyrical the delicate lines depicting the wind patterns are.  It's only just afterward you sort of start processing the actuality of the data being communicated.
 
Even though our method might at first seem obvious or simple, it took us a long time to get there. We tried many different methods, some extremely colorful. In the end, we felt it was important to represent movement with motion, and removing color emphasizes the texture and patterns of wind.
 
You are relative rarities in the way that you frame your data visualisation projects as an artistic practice - your artist statement reads that you "believe visualization to be an expressive medium that invites emotion." Do you consider that a major guiding principle in the way you choose subject matter, conceptualize or formally execute projects, whether independent or commercially commissioned?
 
Data artists are a small but growing group! We're always trying to push the boundaries of visualization can be, and we're mainly interested in data that has an emotional impact. Visualization is about meaning, not just facts.