Author Archives: nicky.krause

Secondary Research Synthesis – Nicky

Guiding Questions


Threats to water quality and quantity are gaining increasing attention worldwide, as climate change and other major environmental concerns have led to detrimental water shortages in drier areas, such as California and the American southwest, as well as impending shortages in areas of relative abundance, such as the Great Lakes region. Although the Great Lake represent a massive transboundary water system that contains 20% of the world’s fresh water supply, scientists have predicted that major Great Lakes cities like Chicago could face water shortages as early as 2050. For the 26 million people in the United States and Canada who obtain their drinking water from the Great Lakes, the preservation and protection of this precious natural resource is essential for their survival.

However, citizens of the Great Lakes basin are often either unaware of potential threats to their water supply, or immobile in terms of civic action that could protect it. To this point, a notable issue facing the Great Lakes in recent years is the possibility of contamination by oil spills, as associated with existing and proposed refineries, pipelines, and transport routes that operate on and around the lakes. Although citizens of the Great Lakes basin have both the right and the ability to participate in discussions and decisions regarding the operation of oil companies in the Great Lakes region, many citizens remain unaware of the issue or uninvolved in it. While it is possible that the citizens are simply apathetic, it is also possible that they are entirely unaware of the issue or lacking information that would empower them to formulate an opinion upon which to act. If citizens understood the rising significance the Great Lakes as a fresh water resource—as well as the risks it faces by the operations of oil companies, relative the benefits of the oil—perhaps protection and stewardship of the lakes would seem more relevant.


Are people aware of oil spills in the Great Lakes basin? How do they understand and explain the potential threats posed by these spills, if they perceive there to be a threat at all?

How, if at all, do people feel they can participate in the management of their fresh water resources? Do they understand how water in the Great Lakes is governed, and where citizens can become involved?

What do people see as the value of oil operations in the Great Lakes? How do they feel about the benefits or risks of proposed pipelines and transport routes in the Great Lakes area? Do they see these developments in a positive, negative, or ambivalent way?

Water Visualization

Over the weekend, I saw an interesting water-related data visualization / light installation, so I thought I’d share it with the class, in case anyone is interested.

On Friday night, I went downtown to see a light installation that was operating in the “green alleyway” known as Couch Place. (Apparently, the alley is considered “green” because the pavement is permeable.) The installation was called “FLOW/Im Fluss,” and it was created by a German artist (now living in Chicago) who is affiliated with the Goethe Institut. Here is a description of the project: “Inspired by the element of water and its all-encompassing connectivity, Luftwerk’s FLOW/Im Fluss visualizes the characteristics of the Chicago River and Hamburg’s River Elbe through video compositions projected on water screens.”

From what I could gather, the artist used light to visualize various datasets related to the health of the Elbe River (which flows through Hamburg, Germany). Datasets included measurements of oxygen levels, nitrates, and pollutants such as e coli. Each dataset was represented with a different pattern of light (oxygen levels = circles, e coli levels = chaotic swirls, etc.), which were projected onto the many water droplets that were being sprayed into the alley from above. The artist also created a comparative visualization for the Chicago river, which was projected onto another set of water droplets at the opposite end of the alley.

Viewers were able to look at the visualized chemical structure of the two rivers simultaneously and to see their similarities and differences.

Here is a picture of the light installation in action:


In addition to the visualization, the artist also sonified the data. She correlated each chemical compound to a sound (examples included a trumpet, a radio playing, and various objects in motion). A live musician was playing the artist’s composition while the light installation was active. Here is a picture of the musician:


When I spoke to the artist, she pointed out that she was surprised at how difficult it was to obtain open data regarding traces of chemicals in the Chicago River. She said that data regarding the Elbe River is readily available (open to the public) and is constantly updated, so she was disappointed to discover that Chicago did not have a similar offering. She said the Chicago River data was all historical, from records she collected from a group called “Friends of the Chicago River.”


Reading Response

In “Critical Visualization, Peter Hall acknowledges the rising importance of information exchange in modern life, and he discusses the increasingly significant task of rendering complex datasets meaningful and helpful to society.  Although Hall recognizes that this issue is becoming rapidly more important, he also acknowledges that the need to make otherwise “bland” information more useful, meaningful, and aesthetically pleasing is not a new one. Consequently, Hall traces a short history of “visualization” as a concept, highlighting a spectrum of perspectives that variously define “visualization” as a technology, an art, or a science.

Ultimately, Hall concludes that each of these definitions is limited in its own way. For example, a purely scientific approach to visualization often fails to understand that the metaphors by which human beings symbolically represent natural phenomena are actually arbitrary (for example, the notion that the color red could indicate a hot temperature). The purely scientific perspective thus has a tendency to neglect cultural context, and, on a separate note, it has been criticized for placing too little value on the aesthetic quality of visualization.

Comparatively, according to Hall, the technological perspective on visualization has often aligned too closely with the concept of technological determinism—the idea that a given piece of technology (in this case, a given visualization) can be understood as the definitive “cause” of changes in society. To believe that any given visualization has such a power is to ignore the fact that the visualization itself was informed and influenced by a cultural context that led its creator to interpret the relevant dataset in a specific way. The data was not “already meaningful” before the artist made it so; rather, datasets come to “mean something” when people use them to tell stories.

The preceding analysis brings Hall around to the notion of visualization as a critical art form. Visualization, he argues, is concerned not only with technology and science, or even aesthetics, but also with a process of interpretation. The critical visualization artist is “sizing up and reformulating a terrain of knowledge as well as experimenting with new and alternative forms.” Critical visualization has the power to bring social issues into conversation in a way that makes information “readable” in new and powerful ways.

Although the following visualization does not necessarily involve a complex dataset, it is an example of how a creative graphical rendering can bring two concepts together in a moment of critical social commentary. Given the fact that an alarming amount of plastic bag waste finds its way into the environment—particularly, into the ocean—this public awareness campaign was meant to visualize the harmful consequences that consumer can choices have on wildlife. Importantly, consumers are reminded of the consequences of their actions at the very moment the action occurs, and they are forced to live with the criticism they presumably get from passersby, all of which hopefully contribute to a change in behavior:

See example

Chicago School of Data Days

I just thought I’d share a link to this event called “Chicago School of Data Days,” which is happening in Chicago (at the Willis Tower) on Friday, September 19 and Saturday, September 20th.

The event is free, and there are 42 tickets left. The topic seems absolutely applicable to our class, so perhaps some of us would be interested in attending and letting the others know what kinds of cool things were discussed.

Here’s the link to read about the “Chicago School of Data” (affiliated with “Smart Chicago”), and here is a link to sign up for the event.