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WaterViz for Hubbard Brook: A New Water Cycle Visualization and Sonification Tool

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Issue: 
Fall 2014

Lindsey Rustad (HBR, US Forest Service)

Investigators at long-term research sites, including many of the LTERs, are increasingly deploying a new generation of environmental sensors and wireless communications that are revolutionizing how we collect and share data about the natural world. These new digital devices allow for the collection and communication of gigabytes of environmental data in near real time, heralding a new era of science and discovery in the environmental sciences. The LTER network, together with partners from the US Forest Service, have taken a lead in developing online resources and publications which provide guidance for best practices for sensor networks and sensor data management (http://wiki.esipfed.org/index.php/EnviroSensing_Cluster; Campbell et al. 2013; Databits Spring 2014). We are now taking a lead in developing an entirely new medium for creatively communicating these near real-time data to the public: WaterViz for Hubbard Brook: A Water Cycle Visualization and Sonification Tool.

The WaterViz for Hubbard Brook lies at the nexus between the hydrologic sciences, the visual arts, music, education and graphic design. In a nutshell, hydrologic data are captured digitally from a small first order catchment at the USFS/LTER Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire using an array of environmental sensors. These data are transmitted to the internet and are used to drive a simple computer model that calculates all components of the water cycle for the catchment in real time. The complete set of measured and modeled data are then used to drive a flash visualization and sonification of the water cycle at Hubbard Brook, which are available to viewers and listeners worldwide on the Internet. The WaterViz provides a unique and novel approach that allows the viewer to intuit the dynamic inputs, outputs, and storage of water in this small, upland forested watershed as they are occurring and from anywhere in the world.  

The visualization was developed as a collaboration between Forest Service and LTER scientists, a Finish forestry software developer, Simosol Oy, and artist, Xavier Cortada. The visualization animates different sections of Xavier Cortada‚Äôs original painting of water flowing through the Hubbard Brook with moving particles. Each section of the painting represents a different component of the water cycle. The number of particles and the speed with which they move are directly proportional to, and driven by, the data.   

The sonification was developed as a collaboration between the same team of scientists and musician Marty Quinn, who runs the Design Rhythmics Sonification Research Lab. The sonification is the acoustic version of a data visualization. It connects the data to pitch, timing, and timber as played by different instruments, allowing the listener to 'hear' multiple lines of data in complex dimensions. We currently have two versions of the sonification: (1) Listen In, which allows you to hear five years of Hubbard Brook data sonified, and (2) Hubbard Brook Listen Live, which is an internet radio station playing live Hubbard Brook data. Both of the sonifications can be found on the Listen In page of the Waterviz website.

Educational applications are a priority, and we are  working with a team of educators, modelers, and teachers to develop lesson plans to incorporate the Waterviz into middle- and high school curricula, using the principals of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). These principals emphasize the need to design flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences (Meyer et al. 2013). The premise is that some children (and adults) learn better visually, acoustically or even kinetically as compared to the more traditional cognitive reasoning pathways that dominate STEM curricula. The Waterviz,can be used to offer an alternative representation of the data that may help to engage and retain these students in the STEM disciplines, and more generally, communicate our data to a broader audience.

The Waterviz is an example of an emerging genre of online artistic visualizations of near real time data. Two other visualizations of near real time natural phenomena are The Carbon Tree and the Earth Visualization of Global Weather Conditions.

We invite you to view the Waterviz at:  http://smartforests.org/waterviz, listen in to five years of data sonification or tune in to the live Hubbard Brook radio station at http://smartforests.org/waterviz/listenin.shtml. The station may be accessed using any Shoutcast capable Internet Radio Station app and searching for Hubbard Brook Forest Live. You can also learn more about the making of the Waterviz on our short video located on the WaterViz Project tab at: http://smartforests.org/waterviz/project.shtml.

The Waterviz is still under construction! We welcome and encourage feedback on the content and displays, and suggestions on creative collaborations and funding opportunities!


waterviz website homepage

References:

Campbell, John L., Rustad, Lindsey E., Porter, John H., Taylor, Jeffrey R., Dereszynski, Ethan W., Shanley, James B., Gries, Corinna, Henshaw, Donald L., Martin, Mary E., Sheldon, Wade. M., Boose, Emery R., 2013. Quantity is nothing without quality: Automated QA/QC for streaming sensor networks. BioScience. 63(7): 574-585.

Meyer, A., Rose, D., and Gordan, D.  2014.   Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Cast Professional Publishing, Cast Inc., Wakefield, MA.  234 pp.