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...

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