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Wednesday, April 17, 2013


The Vision

In the just-published book The Nature of the Future, Dispatches from the Socialstructured World, Marina Gorbis, executive director of The Institute for the Future, describes a scenario in which individual citizens participate directly in government, shaping their own future via a forum called the "New Agora".  The fictional character in this vignette, Rosa, is getting ready to participate:
"In preparation for her first session in the New Agora, Rosa had gotten an online orientation ... She had feared she would not be able to comprehend all the data, but it was presented in a very intuitive and visual way, plus there was an online simulation that demonstrated the many complex effects of different budget decisions.  Throughout the proceedings, New Agora members would have access to these online simulations ...[which] allowed users to see the impacts of budget decisions on particular groups and regions, the environment, and so on."
My goal when I started working on Footprint USA three years ago is cogently captured in Gorbis' scenario.  I want to empower all of us to understand the world we live in now, and mindfully choose the future we want.  Visualizing data in Footprint USA paints a picture of the world we live in today (at least the United States).  The What-If? simulator allows us to envision the future.

The What-If? Simulator

The What-If? simulator allows you to experiment with more than 80 variables - ranging from where we live to what we eat, from how we spend our time and money to how we generate and use electricity,  how and where we travel, how we educate ourselves, and what we put back into the environment.

The image below illustrates the interface to the simulator, which is organized into 25 individual models.  By tapping on any individual model, you access an interface with parameteras to explore.  The image below shows the options for electricity generation, where you can shift the mix to whatever you like.

When you select a model, lines connect it to the other models that influence it (to the left), as well as the models it influences (to the right).  In the case of electricity, it is influenced by homes, personal travel and manufacturing.  There are additional indirect influences captured in the model.  For example, using more fertilizer in agriculture drives the manufacturing of more fertilizer, which generates a need for more electricity, as fertilizer production is energy intensive.  

This comprehensive aspect of the What-If simulator enables the exploration of interesting questions, such as 'What is the impact of biofuels on electricity use, compared to electric cars?'

The electricity production model influences solid, atmospheric, and hazardous waste, as well as water, land and fossil fuel use.  The waste models have further "downstream" influences in the simulator, such as health.  The What-If? simulator does not yet cover the effects of global climate change, but additional models will be added in the future.

When you make changes to any parameter, the effects ripple through the model and a Footprint Score is calculated.  This allows you to compare the future you are designing to the present day, which has a score of 100.  You also see the individual components that contribute to the Footprint Score, as shown here:

While it is easy to create a rosy (or should I say green) future clean energy scenario, the picture changes when you include the population growth expected by 2050:

I encourage you to explore the What-If? simulator and experience first-hand the ways in which the things that shape our lives are interconnected, and what kinds of options we have in designing our future.

By the way, another use for the What-If? simulator is to calculate your own personal Footprint Score.  Set the variables for how you live today - how big your home is, how much you travel, how you spend you time and money, etc.  Are you above 100, or below?  Where would you like to get to?  What one step could you take today towards getting there?

What's Next

The What-If? simulator in its current implementation is designed to help us chose a way of living we'd like to work towards.  It reveals the interdependencies, the total systems costs, and the areas that can provide the greatest return on quality of life.

But it doesn't tell us tell us anything about how to achieve the future we want.  For example, if we wanted to switch to renewable energy production it would be a very big investment.  According to The Conundrum, by David Owen:
"Suppose we agreed on the goal of capping atmospheric CO2 at 450  parts per million - 15% higher than today and consistent with a 2 degree C rise in global temperature.  This would require freezing global energy consumption at current levels despite a projected increase in global population from 7 to 9 billion people.  It would also require the equivalent of all of the following:
  • 100 square meters of solar cells, 50 square meters of solar thermal reflectors, and one Olympic-sized swimming pool of algae for biofuel, every second for the next 25 years. 
  • One 300 foot diameter wind turbine every five minutes
  • One 100 megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours
  • One 3 gigawatt nuclear power plant every week"
If we did do the above, or its equivalent, what would we have to give up instead?  Would it be more practical to focus the change on decreasing consumption?  A combination of both?

These how questions will be addressed in future releases of Footprint USA.  And the vision is for much more than just a simulator.  I want to connect all of us who are interested in creating our future, through shared experiences in designing scenarios, debating the goals, and improving the models.

This first version of Footprint USA is just the first step on this path.  Your purchase of this app will fund the next steps.  I hope you will join me on this journey!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Part V: Putting It All Together In The Footprint View

As I explored the data fueling Footprint USA, an image began to from in my mind of our society as a giant flow of atoms from mines, wells, forests and farms.  A flow through a process of  refining, combining, trimming and distributing, with our households as the ultimate engines drawing all this matter through.  And, when we're done, every single atom that comes in has to go back out - to our atmosphere, waterways, landfills, or storage lockers.

I wanted to a way to see this in a concise overview, where I could better understand how my personal consumption influenced that much larger flow.  How big is that flow, compared to the part I use?  How does the flow in my city, county, or state compare to other places?  What is the resulting quality of life?  Thus was born the Footprint view.  Here it is for New York State:

On the left are the inputs, on the right the outputs - these balance out, though for simplicity's sake not everything is shown on both sides.  In the center is the portion of this flow we actually use to sustain ourselves and our households.  Everything else is overhead.

About half the total energy production is used directly by us, with two-thirds of that half going to transportation. (You can see this in the app by tapping on a pie chart, which makes it colorful and displays a legend).  Only one quarter of the crops produced are actually eaten by us.  (In the app, you can explore where the rest goes).  In our households we personally use only one tenth of the water  that we consume as a society.  And, each and every day, 22.8 ton-miles of stuff is moved on our behalf (this does not include our cars, busses, trains and planes, which move each resident of the Empire State, on average, 26.4 miles every day).

There are many ways to think of quality of life - I selected a few items for data was available:  Health, education, cime, and natural hazards.  There are a number of other factors which impact our quality of life by inspiring us - art, nature, mastery of our vocations and avocations - but for these I had no consistent data, and they are much more subjective.

Finally, everything is combined into a Footprint Score.  For New York state, despite all the inefficiencies listed above, the score is 150.  That is 50% higher than the national average (higher is better), which is, by definition in Footprint USA, 100.

In the app you can find out exactly how the Footprint Score is calculated.  You can find the score for where you live.  And, with the What-If? simulator, you can explore what you can personally do, and what we can do as a society, to change the Footprint Score.  I'll write about that in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Screen Shots, Part IV: Demographics

As I researched the data sources to draw from in creating Footprint USA, the second place I went was the US Census (the first was the National Atlas).

My first impulse was to look at the US Census data on a map, which of course I did, and have made available in the app.  But geography doesn't tell the whole story.  While reading the book How Many People Can the Earth Support?, I learned more about demographics and a particular way of visualizing them with bar charts.  

This led me to selecting a small subset of Census data to display on a single screen such that you can see at a glance how age, employment, education, birth, death, and a few other items are distributed in a given population.  And, in the spirit of competition, you can compare any two locations, from cities to counties to states.  

Here's an example comparing the states of Louisiana and New York

There are a number of factoids this visualization reveals (at least in the case of this comparison)...
  • Males and females are born in equal numbers, but men die younger.    
  • The population skews younger in Louisiana, but not because life expectancy is short - the distribution of people age 65 and up is about the same in both states. 
  • Higher education attainment corresponds to a larger percentage of the population being employed.  (Not a surprise)
  • In Louisiana, the ratio of women to men employed is more equal than in New York.
  • A larger fraction of people rent in New York state than in Louisiana, but people change address less frequently in New York.
  • There are more households in New York than Louisiana with 4, 5, 6, and 7+ people.
What does it all mean when you put it together?  Is low education in Louisiana driving more women to work?  Are smaller families a result of people leaving the state when they hit their mid 20's?  How much is the result of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina?  How will life in New York City, another coastal megalopolis, change when rising seas and more intense storms combine - a preview we saw with hurricane Sandy?

What is perhaps most fascinating (or at least most germane to this post) is how data, visualized properly,  can get us thinking more deeply, motivating us to explore the stories behind the numbers, and enhancing our mental models in ways that allow us to ask better questions.  And maybe even find some answers.  

Watch for the next part and final installment in this series: Part V: The Footprint View.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Screen Shots, Part III: Tree Maps

Tree Maps visualize data by area, much like a pie chart.  Tree maps differ from pie charts by providing a way to clearly compare a larger set of data categories, especially for hierarchical data.  Also, tree maps use rectangles instead of circular slices.  Tree maps that are interactive enable selective drilling down into particular areas, while maintaining a perspective of how the details relate to the whole.

Footprint USA displays a variety of data in the form of tree maps to help build a comprehensive view of how we live as a society.  These cover aspects of the natural environment (Ecoregions, Natural Hazards), how we use resources (Land Use, Commodity Use, Commercial Energy Use, Air Pollution, Residential Energy Use) and our behavior and quality of life (Businesses, Degrees Granted, Diet, Spending, Time Use)

For example, here is a view of total Land Use in the United States:

We can drill down into Field Crops, and see how much of our country is dedicated to growing corn:

Most of this corn goes to feeding livestock, so that we can eat meat.  However, an increasing percentage is being used for biofuels.  We're not eating less meat, so increased biofuels will need to take their land from something else... But that is a topic for another post.

Speaking of diet, have you wondered how our diet has changed?

Looking from right to left, we can see that fruits and vegetables had decreased slightly from 1980 (top) to 2009 (bottom), and there has been a shift from processed to fresh fruits and vegetables.  Cereals, fats & oils, and sweeteners have increased significantly, taking away from dairy, meat & eggs.

What makes up those sweeteners?  The chart below shows how corn is taking over:

There is growing evidence that high fructose corn syrup is driving an epidemic of type II diabetes.

Tracing the path from land-use to diet to health effects is an example of the power of data visualization to enable us to understand the forces shaping our lives.  Knowledge is power, and understanding where we are today as a society empowers us to think about where we want to go.  That is one of the main reasons I created Footprint USA.

Next up:  Part IV: Demographics

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Screen Shots, Part II: Flow Diagrams

Flow diagrams, also known as Sankey diagrams, are a great way to see where a resource goes.  Starting from the left (usually), the diagram shows the sources of the flow.  Proceeding to the right, there is a column which contains the destinations of the flows.  This column might be the source of flows for another column, and so on.  The flows themselves are typically drawn such that the width represents the amount flowing from a source to a destination.

Sankey diagrams are a powerful visualization for seeing the big picture - the relative impacts of various things, bottlenecks, and dependencies.  Creating a Sankey diagram helps you to understand where everything is going.  If you are missing some data, the flows won't add up.  This is usually not a problem if your data all comes from one source.  In the case of several of the Sankey diagrams in Footprint USA, such as the Energy diagram, the data comes from a variety of sources.

Here is the national-level energy flow diagram from Footprint USA:

One of the most striking observations from the diagram above is how much energy is wasted - that's everything that is grey on the right side of this diagram.  But that is a topic for another post...

Footprint USA allows you to generate these diagrams for every state and county in the US.  You can also compare two regions.  Note the difference in the sources used to generate energy in New York state versus Washington state:

So, if you are driving and electric car in Washington state, it is primarily hydroelectric powered, while in New York you electric car is partially nuclear powered (Ford was ahead of its time).

Many of the Sankey diagrams in Footprint USA are interactive.  For example, you can tap on any of the boxes in the Transportation diagram, shown below, to display only the flows into and out of that particular box.

Footprint USA visualizes the flows of many of the major systems of our society, including Atmospheric  gasses, food, commodity flow, waste, and water use.

To see a wide variety of Sankey Diagrams, check out this site.  Lawrence Livermore National Lab has a site where you can explore deeper into energy flow in the US.

Watch for part III, Tree Maps.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Screenshots, Part I: Exploring the Map

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about what you can see and do in Footprint USA.

Much of the data in Footprint USA is viewable on a map.  Maps are displayed as line drawings that can be rendered at any resolution.  This means you can see the whole country... well as zoom in to specific areas, with high-resolution renderings at any magnification:

You can select specific geographical areas, and see the data behind the map.  In the image above,  San Jose California is selected, and a summary of transportation information is provided on the left.   Below, the map is changed to a county-level view of electricity generation:

The map below takes a different view of electricity generation, coloring the counties by the dominant source of electricity for each county:

There are many dimensions of data to view in Footprint USA.  For example, air traffic:

Next up:  Flow Diagrams.

Monday, April 1, 2013


We have the power to change the world.

Every decision each of us makes, from what to eat or what car to drive, from what to wear or where to live, from what to study or how to spend time and money, has an impact on the world.  The challenge is knowing what the best decisions are - for us individually and for the world.  This software is designed to help us explore the impact of some of the decisions we all face, both small and life-changing.  While only you can know what's right for you, this tool can offer a glimpse of the larger social and environmental impact of many choices we have direct and indirect control over.

With millions of people in the US and billions across the planet each making decisions every day, the impact intensifies. The challenge, however, is in understanding precisely how these individual choices add up, including the inter-dependencies,  side effects, and  hidden costs and benefits.  This is a daunting task, because the world is a complex place.  And because consequences can occur years in the future, the connection to the causes is even more difficult to decipher.

Footprint USA is designed to empower us individually, and as a society, to make better informed decisions by:
  • Integrating the major systems we interact with in our daily lives, such as energy, agriculture, manufacturing, and education
  • Simulating, in just a few seconds, the long-term consequences of changes in our behavior- consequences such as health, crime, waste and free time. 
  • Visualizing 
  • Democratizing this experience through an interactive iPad application. 
  • Seeding  learning and action by providing the data and links that allow you to dive deep and follow your curiosity.
May the emergent vision created by those of us who will inhabit the future become a powerful counterpoint to the commercially-driven vision of those who want to sell future to us.