Hurricane Sandy forming in 2012, as visualized in NOAA's SOS Explorer (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Hurricane Sandy forming in 2012, as visualized in NOAA’s SOS Explorer (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Two recently launched applications for mapping datasets examine our planet and humanity’s impact on it. The incredibly advanced Science on a Sphere (SOS) Explorer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a 3D desktop Earth, over which night lights, carbon tracks, ocean temperatures, and even satellites and space debris floating far above the surface are visualized, while Many Cities, from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, tracks mobile phone usage and concentration in major cities.

The two initiatives have distinct focuses but are worth highlighting together, since both are user-friendly tools that demonstrate the increasingly accessible ways in which data is being made available. SOS Explorer is an established presence in museums around the world, where it’s projected onto a physical suspended orb, giving the striking impression of a planet in motion (it’s on permanent view at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and the London Science Museum, to name a few).

The 3D version of SOS Explorer in NOAA/ESRL’s Planet Theater (photo by Will VonDauster/NOAA ESRL)

Carbon tracking on SOS Explorer

The version for Mac and PC announced last month offers the visualization for desktop for the first time. One goal is to make it easy for teachers to use in the classroom, but anyone with an interest in the dynamics of the planet can find a lot to explore. The application (which is a bit large, just over 10 GB when loaded on a Mac) starts with a current view of the Earth, with the clouds shown in real time, and offers loadable datasets based on information from NOAA, NASA, KML, and other agencies dating from 1950 to present. They show current information related to phenomena like earthquakes alongside historical statistics on the changing shape of Arctic ice, cropland density, and even specific moments, like the formation of Hurricane Sandy. NOAA’s announcement notes that future versions will have the whole SOS library of data — like a more in-depth, data-oriented Google Earth.

Density map of New York phone usage on MIT SENSEable Lab’s Many Cities

Spatial clusters showing locations with similar activity timelines in New York on MIT SENSEable Lab’s Many Cities

Meanwhile, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab created Many Cities with Ericsson, which builds telecommunications infrastructure, in an effort to provide “spatio-temporal patterns” of mobile phone activity in New York, London, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. The application was released last year but featured last month in the MIT Technoloy Review. Through a map and charts, it shows the frequency of SMS usage, density of calls, traffic patterns, and usage comparisons between neighborhoods. All of the data is anonymous, but it is a reminder of just how much information is collected from our mobile phones and a consideration of how it can be used.

The SOS Explorer is definitely the more involved tool, but both it and Many Cities use available data to help up understand our planet and human interaction with it, whether that means the physical alterations of climate change or the more invisible rise of phone traffic.

Lights at night in 2012 on SOS Explorer

Earthquakes in realtime on SOS Explorer

Comparing time and usage in different neighborhoods of New York on MIT SENSEable Lab’s Many Cities

NOAA’s SOS Explorer and MIT SENSEable Lab’s Many Cities are both available for free online.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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