NOAA wants to make cool visualizations

Story maps help NOAA make storm narratives come alive

Maps can do more than simply show location data.  By layering in explanatory text, videos, photos and longitudinal data, organizations are increasingly crafting geography-based narratives. Story maps have been used to bring awareness to social problems, preview sporting events and track wildfires.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- which creates and curates one of the largest libraries of GIS data in government -- is among the agencies embracing story maps.  Dan Pisut, who works at the visualization lab at NOAA, explained at Esri's recent FedGIS conference in Washington that his agencies wants to do more than just tell the daily forecast.

“We have a pretty broad mission in that we’re trying to create cool stuff for the agency,” Pisut said. “That could be web services, it could be multimedia and applications for education. So we’re trying to create things to communicate exactly what we’re doing, and I’ve been really excited about story maps in being able to use them for all these different types of applications.”

Story maps are not a new concept.  The non-profit MapStory foundation, which dates back to 2009, was sparked in part by the national security community's need to map trends and interactions, and organizations ranging from Tableau to MapBox to Northwestern University's Knight Lab have developed solutions for such storytelling.  But many government agencies rely almost exclusively on Esri's ArcGIS platform, and so public sector story maps have grown exponentially since being introduced on ArcGIS in 2012. Esri's Allen Carroll said at a presentation during the Esri 2016 FedGIS Conference that last year alone. Esri’s GIS platform was used to create more than 50,000 different story maps publically shared on ArcGIS online.

“These story maps are intended for a lot of uses, but mainly to inform, educate and inspire people,” Carroll said. “It’s been very exciting for us to see as story maps grow and to see these many different uses.”

NOAA has used story maps in the past for statistics on fishing, seafloor mapping for wind energy and showcasing videos of NOAA scientists talking about their operations. Now, the agency is using the GIS platform to create web maps that scale and track hurricanes and other large storms as they evolve. A story map that Pisut demoed during his presentation showed a detailed map of Hurricane Patricia and the path that it took through Texas, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador last year.

Patricia, which struck in Oct. 2015, was the second most intense hurricane on record worldwide, costing more than $450 million dollars worth of damage. Pisut said the map, despite all the features, was easy to create.

“We’re looking at creating story and web maps of hurricanes as they evolve,” Pisut said. “We can script these maps to update in real time. We can regenerate the map from the data from the National Hurricane Center, as we’re uploading a new stylized image. So we’re looking at doing these types of event trackers either as they’re happening or after the fact.”

Synced to the Patricia map was a group of high-resolution images of the storm from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center as well as captions giving users more detailed information such as air pressure, wind speed and direction.

NOAA also wants to use story maps as an educational tool to get kids interested in weather and at the same time provide a curriculum for teachers. Data in the Classroom (a website that’s no long supported by NOAA) was a resource that provided lessons on NOAA’s data and how variables can be analyzed. Pisut wants to revive the site and use it as an educational tool for students and teachers across the country who are interested in learning about more about the science of weather.

“We could really translate the content into a story map," he said. "All we have to do is reconfigure those data services into our Esri ArcGIS server, and when we need to build a new map, we don’t have to hire a webmaster to do it. We already have the data services; all we have to do is add new text into the story map, publish it and we’re done.”

NOAA may be in the early stages of using story maps for educational purposes, but the agency is already thinking big.

“We’re looking to partner with education professionals in developing applications,” Pisut told GCN. “We don’t want to develop the curriculum ourselves -- we’re not experts at that -- but we’re more than willing to partner with other groups to create effective classroom activities.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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