2021 Shortlist

Your Personal Carbon History

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Parametric Press

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 19 Oct 2020

Credit: Aatish Bhatia

Project description:

I researched, wrote, and coded an interactive article that centers the geological history of carbon dioxide on Earth around the reader’s life [1]. The article zooms out over millions of years to explain why we’re living in a geologically unprecedented time. This piece grew out of an article in my climate newsletter The Rate of Change [2]. It was published in Parametric Press [3], an experimental online publication for interactive explanatory journalism, with feedback and input from their editors.

Impact reached:

The article was used as a teaching tool and discussed in an environmental science course at Cornell University. I was interviewed about it for the Numlock News newsletter by Walt Hickey, and by The Open Notebook, as part of an interview about my climate science & data newsletter (the Rate of Change).

Techniques/technologies used:

I used Idyll and React for interactivity. I used the javascript library p5.js for canvas animations and plotly.js for graphing.

What was the hardest part of this project?

There are a few aspects that were particularly challenging:

1. My goal was to create an interactive narrative that personalizes the history (and prehistory) of carbon dioxide around the life of the reader. As most interactive frameworks are designed for creating modular interactive elements rather than a customizable narrative, this was a technically complex project that required me to push the envelope in what was possible with these tools.

2. I went through many unsucessful iterations of visualizing the (somewhat abstract and technical) unit of ‘parts per million’, before arriving at the starfield visualization in the article. This interactive visualization uses motion and depth to convey how minute levels of a greenhouse gas can add up to a large effect.

3. As part of the customizable narrative, I wanted to annotate graphs with events that are specific and relevant to the reader’s life. This was a considerable technical challenge, requiring a significant amount of custom code to adapt the plotly library to my needs.

4. Another challenging aspect was presenting this article in a responsive way that scaled and was interpretable on multiple screen sizes, which required a fair amount of custom typography scaling code and visual tweaks.

What can others learn from this project?

Other journalists can learn how to present a large, technical dataset in a manner that is personal, relatable, and customized to the reader’s life. They can learn about how to visualize abstract & intangible quantities in tangible ways, and to bring context to deep historical data. The code for this interactive is open-source and available on GitHub [4].

In the spirit of open data & reproducible reporting, I have also published the Python code notebooks that I created to compile the paleoclimate data [5].

Project links: