Data Visualization for Meaningful Change with Illah Nourbakhsh, Carnegie Mellon University & Director of the CREATE Lab

Karrah Krakovyak interviews Illah Nourbakhsh Professor at Carnegie Mellon University & Director of the CREATE Lab. They discuss creating meaningful change by employing historical data and explorable imagery in online resources such as EarthTime.


Karrah Krakovyak
Sustainability Innovator
More about Karrah Krakovyak
Highlights from this article

We can tell stories and we can tell stories about solar panels and wind farms being put into place. At the same time. It can tell stories about Lake Mead shrinking because Las Vegas grows too quickly. And literally thousands of stories are possible. Each one though, because they're visual really burn themselves into your retina and get right into your cortex. So it's like a direct path in that lets you emotionally engage with the whole idea that the earth is changing under our feet rapidly because of the decisions we make.

And we sit them on stools and give them a deep dive image show of this and you should see their expressions because we can show the trees falling and then the Amazon, and then we can zoom out until you see both the East and West coasts of South American continent. And now you understand the vastness of forest loss and when you show somebody like that instead of a chart when you showed it visually like that, they buy into it, they get it and they ask the question, okay, what'd you do about it? So they move on from doubting the data to wondering about the solution.

We're doing that because we believe a more informed populace is able to make more rational decisions and have common ground with each other so that we don't have as much divisiveness in society.

Our maps have certainly been used for example, to look at solar panel policy changes along the East coast because we can show every installation of every solar panel on the East coast over time. And so you can see glaring changes in States like Delaware, where they don't have good subsidies, right next door to states like Massachusetts, where they have fantastic subsidies. And the difference is basically stunning. So you've seen that kind of policy at the national level where people drive policy decisions

But we have maps that show demography of eviction, demography of home ownership, the number of people by race, by color of skin who are denied mortgages by mortgage application. And we can show their salary level. So we can show that make enough money for the mortgage, but they just don't get the mortgage. And so by showing historical red lining and then superimposing that with these kinds of demographies, we've got the entire Pennsylvania housing commission now working on new mortgage vehicles. So that African-Americans and vulnerable populations can get mortgages because then you have much lower cost of living relatively speaking than rental, especially in a city like Pittsburgh.

When they see the earth being warm. It's one thing when they see the rate at which the earth is warming now, compared to 20 years ago, a hundred years ago, they become almost panicky and they become convinced that we have to do something about it now. And that sense of urgency. That's really important in that kind of rhetorical communication that you're trying to do to get somebody to care, not just enough to agree with you, but enough to decide they need to actually set aside some time to help you get the job done

Sign up for SolveCast, the news that solves. Your inbox will be happy.

* indicates required