Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Free Climate Change Data?

Ed Parsons has written a post about making Global warming data free for the public. He makes the point:
"Unfortunately people have lost confidence is both politicians and I’m afraid scientists to provide unbiased analysis of data on Climate Change, perhaps we now need to better educate people as to how to look at climate change data themselves"
I'm not sure about 'lost confidence in scientists' but lets leave that for another day. I totally agree that releasing machine readable data is good for society as a whole (with some ethical exceptions) and I also agree with Ed that educating the public about climate change is crucial in the coming years. Ed continues:
"and to make this data available without spin or interpretation so that people can make their own minds up."
He then goes on to discuss EDGAR, a project to make geotagged emission data freely available. He ends:
"And before any climate scientists out there claim that this is ridiculous and that the general public cannot be expected to deal with such complex tools and concepts, ask a surveyor or cartographer if they expected that the general public would be building the only detailed global digital maps a few years ago ?"
The General Public and Complex Tools: I don't think Ed's analogy holds water. It's relatively easy for me to walk out of my front door, turn on a GPS, map some roads and upload that data to OSM to help 'build detailed global digital maps', because a knowledgeable community thought up the initiative and provided the framework by which data could be added (Muki's post expands this idea). In the same way, I can view visualisations of global warming data in Google Earth because scientists have collected data, processed it and worked out the best way to present it. I find it hard to believe 'bedroom scientists' will have the skills to do the same task. You only have to look at the EDGAR website to appreciate the skills and knowledge necessary. I have an MSc in Earth Science and I don't know details such as relative contributions of different global warming gases (e.g. methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide) or whether CO2 from forest fires should be included and if not, how do you take it out of the calculation.

Part of the screen shot Ed used in his post

Climate Change in Google Earth: GEarth is a fantastic tool to inform the public about climate change issues but IMHO its not a lack of raw data that's the main problem, I think its a lack of understanding about GeoWeb usabilty. You need go no further than the screen shot Ed provides to see this in the EDGAR visualisation*:
  • They've failed to show what the units are in the key
  • They've used a palette of colours that is difficult to view if you are green/red colour blind
  • They're showing global data on a Virtual globe - I can't compare the map of Australia with the UK in the same view.
All this gets in the way of what would otherwise be a very compelling story.

Putting my Money where my Mouth is: In a couple of weeks I'm going to present and help chair the Virtual Globes session at AGU , my paper will be on best practices in using Google Earth tours to communicate science (including climate change) to the public. More of that later of course...

*It may be someone in EDGAR has just thrown the data into GEarth as an experiment in which case my criticisms are a little unfair - I have no evidence this is a published project and I don't know what other materials are in the project apart from the screen shot. I *really* want to encourage them to publish on Google Earth and using other GeoWeb tools, I think they have a great story to tell but I'd advise they think about usability before they do.

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