Pacific Northwest climate trends

The University of Washington Climate Impacts Group has built a new visualization tool for the state climatologist, which makes it easier than before to explore the whole climate record for Washington and some data for neighboring US states. The data itself is nothing new,  but being able to explore it can help to get a handle on what’s going on.  I rather arbitrarily picked my life to date as the range to compare, and got the sobering result that every single monitoring station has registered an increase in temperature since I was born; most statistically significant.

A map of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana, showing temperature increases at every station, and line charts for each state showing the overall trend

Of course, there’s no scientific basis for picking that particular range, but I wasn’t cherry-picking either (I’d have picked 1985-2015 if that were my goal). I just wanted dates that felt personally meaningful, and even as someone who considers myself relatively well-informed about climate change the sheer scale of the trend was breathtaking.

Allen Coral Atlas

As a child, I adored the National Geographic magazines.  I collected them for long enough to fill a bookshelf, and I think it’s fair to say that they had a pretty big influence on how I’ve ended up making a living.  So it was particularly satisfying to see a project I’ve been involved with since the summer get a writeup in National Geographic:

Inside the daring plan to map every coral reef from space

It’s a wonderfully ambitious project—using imagery that wasn’t available 5 years ago—and terrifyingly urgent.  Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification, and massively important as both habitat and shoreline protection.  We have very little time to left to figure out ways to make them more resilient, or lose a major source of protein and watch storms do more and more damage as the reefs’ protection is lost.

The project also lost two of its champions this year: Paul Allen and Ruth Gates.  I wish I had had the chance to get to know Dr. Gates.  Among other things, she set a great example of how to engage with work this sad and frightening and never be crushed by the weight of it.  The project continues, and feels like a fitting memorial to both.

My role is to integrate the processed data we get from two different research groups: one infers depth from the satellite imagery, and the other classifies areas of reef by types of sea floor and what’s growing on them.  I write automation that turns the depth data into false-colour imagery, and prepares everything to be displayed in the web map. Here’s a snapshot of that depth imagery:

Bathymetry around Karimun Jawa, Indonesia

So far we just have a single snapshot in time of 6 reefs, but the real challenge will be scaling that to all the reefs in the world, updated regularly.  You can explore it yourself and read about the methods and partnership at http://allencoralatlas.org/ .

Because it’s a limited preview so far and most areas aren’t covered yet, panning and zooming around the globe isn’t very satisfying.  I recommend clicking on the place names in the “Mapped Areas” list to see where we actually have data.  And for a first look I prefer to turn all of the data layers off, zoom to a location, and then turn them back on one at a time starting from the bottom of the list.

My comments on the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the US Census

I’m sorry to leave this till the last minute, but there are just over 24 hours left to make public comments on an important mistake that the US Census Bureau is set on making. The Bureau has proposed, over the objections of many of its own staff, to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 survey. This is a terrible idea which is almost certain to cause immigrants to be undercounted because of fear, especially in the context of the vicious hostility the US has been displaying against immigrants over the past couple of years. Even if that were an unintended consequence, it would be reason enough to oppose this change, but there is also strong reason to believe it’s being done in bad faith. Meanwhile, the 2020 Census was already in danger from good old fashioned neglect, underfunding and incompetence, problems that will only be compounded by adding a question that discourages responses.

As someone who uses Census statistics regularly in my work, I am concerned that if this is allowed to go through it will leave us unable to rely on the 2020 count as the accurate snapshot we depend on it being. As a citizen and resident of this country, I am afraid that what we’re seeing is a deliberate attempt to skew future elections and federal government resource allocations by systematically undercounting the population of areas with more immigrants.

If you read this in time, please make a public comment.  It doesn’t have to be a long reasoned argument—even just saying “please don’t add the citizenship question” may be worth something—but here’s what I wrote, trying to put it in terms that the Census Bureau is officially supposed to care about, in case it helps you to write yours: Continue reading “My comments on the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the US Census”

“A Renewable America”

A map I made just went live at arenewableamerica.org .

This was a relatively small project, but there are two things I’m particularly happy with. One is that it’s the first time I’ve hand-drawn boundaries with enough detail to actually publish – all the convoluted parts of the Grid Campaign layer that don’t correspond to state lines are hand drawn from a reference map:

A map showing the very convoluted shapes of 3 of the US's "Regional Transmission Organizations"

The other is that it’s the first time in years I’ve been able to work on promoting renewable energy. After leaving a PhD program, my first work outside academia was an internship for a local renewable energy nonprofit, but since then I hadn’t found a way to contribute to this field until this little project showed up.  It feels good to circle back to a cause I’ve never stopped caring about.

“Mapas interactivos para el análisis de la inclusión financiera en México”

One of the pleasures of working on FINclusionLab has been getting my work translated into the languages of most of the countries we cover: French, Spanish, and Turkish. By happy coincidence these are also most of the languages that I either speak or am making a serious effort to learn. I am not fluent enough in any of them to do the translating myself, but I can at least understand the translations that I’m applying, and read domestic press coverage when it comes out. It’s not always easy to get key stakeholders to actually use the tools we’re making for them, so it was particularly nice to see Mexico’s national bank trumpeting the release of the financial inclusion dashboards we made:

La CNBV presentó los mapas interactivos para el análisis de la inclusión financiera en México

[Google’s translation is not bad, albeit even wordier than an already government-speak heavy press release]

A screenshot of the Mexico dashboard showing a map and chart about the spread of correspondent banking state-by-state

“Deciphering the Data Deluge”

My biggest project for the past few years has been an ongoing series of workbooks about access to financial services in Africa, Asia & Latin America. I do this work as a subcontractor to an NGO called MIX, whose CEO recently gave an interview concisely explaining why we do this work and what it’s useful for. This paragraph gets to the heart of it:

FINclusion Lab creates single datasets and databases where previously siloes existed. For example, the data – which primarily includes access point location and demand-side data like population density, cellular coverage, poverty rates and the like – is usually found in project documents (PDFs), or separate online locations managed by regulators, or even individual Excel files from financial institutions. Bringing it all together in one place allows users – often regulators, financial institutions or others – to conduct analyses across different types of data including service points (geo-coded data), credit/deposit usage and demographics. It also allows users to visualize the data across geographies and drill down to more specific locales. Because we publish this data in a highly interactive format, users can explore the data based on their specific questions or interests. For example, a user can explore a particular district or type of financial service provider, or pick a reference period to view trends.

I’ve also been working behind the scenes on the infrastructure we use to conduct and share analyses, simplifying the toolchain and making updates & translations easier to apply. This included rebuilding a venerable Tableau template from the ground up, and here’s the first country workbook we’ve published in the new template:

MIX Zambia country workbook

Navigating within Palestine

Palestinians in the Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank live in a completely separate reality from Israelis just a few miles away, to the point that many roads are only open to one of those populations. This turns out to be a real challenge for crowdsourced navigation apps like Waze and Google Maps. Although the linked article makes much of the countries each service is based in, I find this more interesting as a study in the accidental politicisation of maps. I don’t think Waze is trying to handicap Palestinians; it’s stuck in a model of trying to show one consensus reality, when what’s a great route for one driver may be illegal or unacceptably dangerous for another.

Jericho in Google Maps and OpenStreetMap

Clues in cuneiform

I just read about some very cool big data archaeology. A group of economists and historians constructed a dataset from 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets, adding up to hundreds of records of trade transactions between cities. They treated trade volumes as proxies for the distance between cities, presumably calibrated using trade between pairs of cities with known locations. But many of these cities are lost to modern people, and that’s where this gets really interesting: if archaeological site A traded with lost city B, the researchers could plot a radius around A for the likely distance to B. With enough known locations, they can start to narrow down where the lost cities must be:

Narrowing down the location of a lost city

Source: Washington Post. Original paper: Trade, merchants, and the lost cities of the Bronze Age.

What would it take to predict climate change inundation well?

Last week I ranted about a poorly executed report claiming to show which properties around the US are at risk of climate change driven flooding. Peter Abrahamsen responded with:

Also, mean sea level, however it’s measured, doesn’t tell you who’s at risk of flooding.

and then pointed me at a couple of much better examples, most notably the Victoria, BC Capital Regional District’s climate change modeling project. I think it’s worth looking at all the other questions that would have to be answered to really get this right. Before diving in, I want to make clear that I’m not piling on Zillow any more: last week’s post was about flaws they should have figured out as a real estate data company, while most of what’s below will be details that they never claimed expertise in or took a position on. Continue reading “What would it take to predict climate change inundation well?”

Blindly trusting data will leave you all at sea

Zillow recently published a report on how many houses are at risk from sea level rise around the US. It’s a good idea, but looking closely at where I live reveals some… issues in their analysis. Here’s a screenshot from the Seattle Times’ article with the local angle on the report:

Homes that Zillow thinks are at risk of flooding from sea level rise in Seattle

If you know Seattle, you can probably spot the first problem. For those who don’t: the Eastern shore, and the cluster N of the word “Seattle” on that map are all lakefronts, separated from the sea by the rather large Ballard Locks. The local article’s been updated to mention that, but Zillow’s downloadable data hasn’t. And even the local article misses a detail: if sea levels were to rise by a foot more than the analysis assumed, the highest tides would still only be 4¾ inches over the lock gates—a problem for some houses for sure, but nothing like the 7 feet of flooding we’d have on our sea side, and much less than the amount the lake is already allowed to rise and fall by.

But there’s another problem, unrelated to quirks of Seattle’s Herculean engineering, and much more worrying for the reliability of this analysis. Continue reading “Blindly trusting data will leave you all at sea”