Case Study: HP Earth Insights
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.
Earth Insights is an innovative collaboration between HP and Conservation International that applies big-data-processing technology to monitor biodiversity loss across the world’s tropical forests. Using millions of animal photos captured by camera traps, scientists are able to track how land use, human activity and climate change affect species. Our mission was to design an interactive touch-screen feature for HP Discover Barcelona, an industry conference focused on HP technology applications. We aimed to demonstrate the power of big data for social and environmental initiatives and to highlight HP’s involvement in the project.
Since we received the data at the same time that CI’s scientific team did, there were no pre-analyzed findings to highlight. We therefore started by prototyping visualizations in order to identify interesting leads in the data and inspire the concept’s narrative. Using slideshow, timeline, animated map and data-visualization elements, the presentation told stories about threatened animals around the world, the conservationists who are working to protect them and the biodiversity trends they are discovering with the help of data-analysis solutions. It also integrated photographs from fieldwork sites and biodiversity statistics into a seamless, intuitive layout that captivated visitors and made complex scientific data easy to grasp.
Watch the video here
Earth Insights is an innovative collaboration between HP and Conservation International that applies big-data-processing technology to monitor biodiversity loss across the world’s tropical forests. Using millions of animal photos captured by trap cameras, scientists are able to track how factors such as land usage, human activity and climate change affect species. Our client was to unveil Earth Insights at HP Discover Barcelona, an industry conference focused on HP’s technologies that took place in December 2013. Our mission was to design an interactive touch-screen application to engage visitors using data, technology and images to portray the real changes occurring in earth’s ecosystems. The audience consisted of business and IT professionals as well as press and media. The goals of the project were to demonstrate the power of HP’s technologies used for environmental good and to accentuate HP’s role as a tech innovator.
Hewlett-Packard Company, also known as HP, is an American multinational information technology corporation. It provides hardware, software and services to consumers, small and medium-sized businesses and large enterprises, including customers in the government, health and education sectors. In 2012, HP joined forces with Conservation International, a leading non-governmental organization dedicated to protecting nature and ensuring a healthy and productive planet for local and global communities. HP leveraged the HP Vertica Analytics Platform to manage Earth Insights’ large and fast-growing volumes of data. It now holds three terabytes of critical biodiversity information, including more than 1.4 million photos and more than 3 million climate measurements such as precipitation, temperature, humidity and solar radiation.
With this in mind, FFunction set out to explore Earth Insights data and introduce it in an interesting, visual way to HP Discover Barcelona, which was attended by approximately 10,000 customers, partners and IT thought leaders.
We were tasked with developing an application that would allow visitors to explore and play with the data while highlighting HP’s involvement in a subtle way, therefore providing a visual communication of the information collected by Earth Insights. The deadline was short, considering that the project had to be launched for Discover Barcelona in December 2013, giving us only two months to complete the project.
The collected data and photos taken by the trap cameras were the central raw material of the project. As such, our early vision was to create a data-rich interactive application to showcase the photos. Since the project was developed primarily for the event, we needed the design of the visualizations to be simple enough for the short attention span of a visitor, yet complex looking to convey the power of big data. We also thought it was important to have a strong narrative, having learnt from previous experiences that exploration of data can be quite overwhelming for the data-visualization novice.
Another main concern was to design an interface that would work for both touch- screens and desktops to extend the project’s shelf life after the event and adapt it into a stand-alone website.
We began by meeting with Jorge Ahumada, Executive Director of TEAM Networks for Conservation International. This allowed us to grasp the initiative’s background, the challenges and the process behind the collection of Earth Insight’s data. Knowing what indicators could potentially be available was key to developing the concept.
Another part of our research consisted of building prototypes to explore the data graphically, resulting in series of visual tests. Each focused on a different element (e.g., elevation of the camera positions, number and distribution in time of photos captured since the beginning of the project, etc.). The prototypes were useful in assessing our initial design ideas, which had to be adapted to the final data and to potential changes. For example, one of the concepts was originally designed to present the data of approximately 200 species; however, the prototypes revealed a much smaller number of relevant species. The tests helped us see which visuals were most effective in the narrative of Earth Insights’ story.
Our journalist used the prototypes to identify species in decline and conduct interviews with the scientists and project stakeholders, revealing interesting details about the project. Early on, we realized that these stories could be used to create a narrative and give life to the numbers.
The HTML5 Earth Insights interactive application told the story of the first worldwide biodiversity surveillance network and the species it works to protect. Data-rich visualizations were overlaid on lush forest photography to create an intriguing nature-meets-technology ambience. The experience was structured to guide the user from a big picture overview to granular data insights through three separate sections that each expressed a different aspect of the data.
A short introduction gave background information about the project and highlighted how it was made possible by HP’s latest technology. It then moved on to an interactive replay of the trap cameras being triggered by animals across the world, giving a sense of the project’s scale. Viewers could zoom in on each of the 16 sites and explore beautiful imagery of the forest and scientists doing field work. Custom maps highlighted the fields’ characteristics while staying true to the geographic positioning of the trap cameras. The second visualization allowed users to learn how species were being affected (positively or negatively) by several factors such as land usage, human activity and climate change. We used the trap photos of the species as a way to encourage users and visitors to explore and play with the data. Finally, visitors could interact and filter the results of Earth Insights, with the help of a biodiversity index that showed the evolution of species over time. We created an algorithm to statically generate a large portion of the data cube, to allow smooth and fast exploration of the data without having to burden the browser or the server with resource-intensive computations.
Another important part of our solution was to weave the stories with the data by using them in parallel. For example, when reading a story about the giant tapir, the visualization would reconfigure to show the effect of human activity on the species, given that the tapir is a target for poachers. Therefore, the narration supported the exploration of the visualizations.
Data visualizations are usually difficult to design for touch screen devices because of the many different levels of details. Even on large 42-inch touch screen displays, fingers were too large to select one of the many dots representing different species. Our solution was to create tap-friendly thumbnails that worked well for both touch screens and desktops.
Although the first concepts were designed before receiving the actual data, the final product stayed faithful to our first sketches, showing that it is possible to design without having the final data provided that you are willing to adapt ideas.
When we started on the project, the scientists had not yet analyzed the data, which meant there were no specific findings to highlight in the interactive application. Because of the aggressive timeline, we could not afford to wait for the final data to get started yet we had no margin for error to start over. We also faced constraints such as the task of simultaneously designing for both touch and mouse interaction. These elements were taken into consideration early in the design process.
The visualization was showcased in a booth at HP’s semi-annual customer and partner event, Discover Barcelona 2013. HP executives, customers and partners interacted with the data visualization, seeing how big data allows users to monitor and predict trends. The event was a big hit with attendees and regional press. Following the event, HP executives enthusiastically decided to extend the project and keep it updated as more data becomes available in the coming years.
Our design solution exceeded the goals established at the beginning of the project. By communicating the client’s message without overwhelming users with data, we managed to build a clear, cohesive and comprehensive communication tool that engaged visitors and raised awareness on the issue of the loss of biodiversity.
The measure of effectiveness of this project was how effectively the application communicated the narrative of HP, Earth Insights and the issue of the loss of biodiversity to the attendees of Discover. The success of the project was measured through the positive feedback given by the attendees and the client. The project is not intended as a marketing or sales tool; thus, quantifiable metrics were not measured.
Following the launch of HP Earth Insights, FFunction was invited to present the project at Visualized 2014 in New York, a well-known data visualization conference. It was extremely well received and garnered attention from major environmental organizations and the data visualization community.
View our presentation of HP Earth Insights at Visualized 2014.
Comments from the Jury
“This is a great example of how designers can be the most effective communicators when it comes to visualizing and synthesizing robust data. The UI also demonstrated how the designer blended photography, type, graphic elements and sourced content to produce an exceptional user experience.” —Dana Arnett
“At a time when there are staggering amounts of data on almost any topic, I enjoyed seeing this inventive use of visualizations and technology. The design is a great mix of graphs and maps interspersed with the right amount of photographic storytelling. From the background to the color scheme and the animation choices, this project is cohesive and stimulating.” —Kate Aronowitz
“We found the interface engaging and illuminating an important topic.” —Joe Gebbia
“It's a mouthful to say, but this project –the interactive data visualization of biodiversity loss across the world's tropical rainforests demonstrating HP technologies and innovation—was beautiful and easy to engage. The thumbnail-on-tap interaction was particularly effective.” —Jennifer Kinon
“This project translated vast amounts of data into an accessible learning experience. Much more then arcane info-aesthetics, the UI makes the insights of the Worldwide Biodiversity Surveillance Project accessible to a wide audience.” —Jeremy Mende
“This is an awe-inspiring, seductive and immersive display of quantitative information that expertly treads the line between gratuitous technological flash and accountable and decodable data. It’s a triumph of interaction and experience design.” —Christopher Simmons