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Mapping the 2016 Vizzies

Speed read
  • Vizzy awards are chosen by Popular Science and the US National Science Foundation.
  • Best interactive visualization goes to Bernhard Jenny's reinterpretation of Bill Putnam's C0research.
  • Jenny's map is a cartographic and climatologic masterpiece. 

The 2016 Vizzies were recently announced, and once again, the winners did not fail to amaze. Taking home the best interactive visualization was a map that has not only solved digital cartographic challenges, it has also found a new way to view the most critical issue of our time.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) and Popular Science select the Vizzies. For best interactive visualization, they tapped an interactive global C02 map designed by Bernhard Jenny of the School of Science at RMIT University Melbourne. Jenny based his vizzy on an earlier C02 time-lapse map by Bill Putman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Bent out of shape. Jenny's award-winning visualization solves continental size distortion caused by the Mercator projection while animating C02 spread around the globe. Look here for a full screen version. Courtesy Bernhard Jenny.

Created while he was a professor at Oregon State University, Jenny’s award winner flowed from two motivations. He wanted to develop a new type of interactive video map that made use of a novel technique for map projections. He also thought understanding and seeing how C02 spreads is a vital topic to address.

Jenny’s research began when he set out to correct for the infamous Mercator projection problem, a map projection technique that distorts the true size of continents. In Mercator web maps, for instance, you’ll see Greenland nearly the size of Africa when it’s actually about 14 times smaller. 

The Mercator projection is used by Google maps — the standard of most web-based maps — so Jenny sought a way to combine multiple map projections that automatically select a projection most appropriate for the region displayed. He also wanted maps that would faithfully convert raster data (shapes such as remotely sensed images, or shaded relief images to show terrain).

To accomplish this, Jenny turned to video game graphic processing units (GPUs), and was surprised to find how powerful off-the-shelf GPUs are — some capable of 100 million complex map projection calculations per second. By harnessing the GPU processing speed, Jenny created a way for users to rapidly resize and interactively pan, zoom, and adjust the center of the map while adjusting projection geometry at a rate of up to 60 frames per second.

With his new map-making tools in hand, Jenny approached Putman’s map. Jenny considered Putman’s video to be a perfect candidate for further exploring the video capabilities of their prototype research system.

“When I saw Putman’s video I was blown away, as it clearly shows the Earth as a living, constantly changing organism and how we humans influence it,” Jenny recalls. 

<strong> Blowin' in the wind. </strong> The award for the NSF/Popular Science best interactive visualization went to Bernhard Jenny's update of Bill Putman's 2006 time-lapse video of C0<sub>2</sub> in the atmosphere. Courtesy Bernhard Jenny.

However, the projection distortion and lack of interactive features limited Putman’s map. Jenny thought it would be more instructive if the time lapse could better show the swirling winds around the poles and host an ability to zoom in and out.

He also gave the map more spatial context by overlaying it with country borders to make it easier to locate individual features (for example, check out the fires in Africa).

Jenny’s work represents a new level of geodata projections, transforming maps in a realistic and instantaneous manner. Despite the groundbreaking results, he thought his map was an atypical entrant to the Vizzies and so he was surprised and honored to win. 

“Receiving an award from NSF is a huge honor. NSF grants are very competitive and the NSF is considered the standard for science funding by many — not only in the US but elsewhere,” says Jenny.

“Seeing this work featured in the Popular Science magazine is also extremely rewarding for everyone involved in the creation of this map, because it shows that cartography has its place among the different branches of life science and natural science. Maps matter — and it is nice to see this confirmed by this award.”

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