Upstream / One Stream / Downstream

Visualizing a human-centered watershed network


Inspiration

Problem Statement Based on analysis of current report cards and visualization tools, we found three broad inadequacies that a human-centered design could address. These are:

  • Not enough people know about the issue of water quality and the bay, and how it impacts things that they care deeply about.
  • Not enough people can contextualize their role, either as contributor as potential change agent. They therefore do not feel invested in the issue, or feel powerless.
  • There is not enough data to tell a complete and robust picture about water quality in the bay watershed.

Existing Solutions While report cards and visualizations do exist for the bay, they are not designed in a human-centered way, which limits their effectiveness in creating change. These drawbacks include:

  • They are often hard to understand, and clearly tailored to niche audiences like policymakers instead of average citizens.
  • The data is retrofitted within artificial boundaries so that one can only see it within the context of a “bubble,” and not within the giant network that it truly is. Users can’t engage with the data in such a way that they truly understand how the system interacts, and how inputs create tangible downstream impacts.
  • There are many compelling and human-centered stories and “hooks” which are not being told. Important and relevant data, from human (eg - demographics) to ecological (eg - bird habitation zones) geography is missing.
  • The data is black or white, with users not being able to see data gaps (in time or sample size), and therefore missing a key message with the need to collect better data.

Vision We thought of an ideal end state for this project, where thousands of users were interacting with the data, conducting testing, sharing resources and research, and picking up calls to action based on the messages the data was telling in real-time. To get to this ideal end state, the following steps would need to be achieved:

  1. Get critical mass of people to use the site
  2. Get visitors to the site hooked on the issue
  3. Get critical mass of people to become testers
  4. Sustain and compound efforts The second point was most relevant to this design challenge, but all would have to be achieved to be successful. The dashboard would make the data engaging and meaningful to a diverse audience, and be scaffolded and designed in such a way that it would create myriad opportunities for scaling

What it does

Overview The site would have a dashboard with data that is (1) visually compelling, (2) relatable, and (3) lends itself to calls to action.

1. Visually Compelling: Users would enter the site, plug in their address, and then access a variety of visuals showing (1) all of the pollutants that come into their locality, and (2) all the pollutants that their locality adds downstream. The data would be visualized in one or a combination of formats, such as:

  • A sankey plot (with the river system visualized on a horizontal axis, with the user’s locality at the middle)
  • A network node visualization
  • A map showing the bay watershed, with (1) the counties contributing to the user’s water quality, and (2) the counties the user’s locality impacts. The data would be toggleable based on a number of criteria, including:
  • Political subdivisions (eg - county level)
  • Pollutant inputs
  • Subdivisions of pollutants
  • Political demographics

2. Relatable: The data would be visualized in a simple format, and framed in ways that allow the user to filter by area of interest. Users from a variety of interest areas could approach the data in the following ways:

  • Political: Users could focus the data by political boundaries to infer where policy failures are enabling water quality to be impacted.
  • Human: Users could see demographics of areas where pollution is occuring, and where it is having the worst effects.
  • Ecological: Users could visualize pollutants and see how they impact animals and plant-life. The data would be made easy to understand, and put in real world translations. For example:
  • A user could click on one of the counties upstream, see the pollutants that that county is creating, and see where each manifests from
  • Eg: A user could see that “pollutant x comes chiefly from factory runoff,” A user could click on an area of the map/visualization, see a breakdown of the pollutants, and be able to toggle over them to see how they impact (1) animal life, (2) plant life, (3) human quality of life
  • Eg : when toggling over “human quality of life” impacts, can see a list of things like “Swimming hazardous, water murky, E-Coli risk, cancerous plastics leaching into drinking water, etc.
  • Eg: when toggling over “animal life” can see list of things like “turtles will not live in this water, fish develop cancer, contributes to bird deaths, etc.
  • For each of these lenses, they should be as tangible as possible. Visuals should be included to enable users to emotionally and personally relate to what they are seeing.
  • Eg: users would see pictures of shorebirds when looking at how certain pollutants contribute to animal health.
  • Eg: Users could post pictures of rivers when doing testing, which would be uploaded to the site and be tagged as nodes alongside the data points. Users could then scroll through photos up and down river systems to get a visual of what the water looks like day-to-day. Someone could see how turbid the water is at the mouth of the bay, and someone could also see how pristine the mountain water looks compared to where they live.

3. Calls to Action: The data would be presented in such a way that calls to action would be natural, and the users would actively seek them out. The following are how the site would enable calls to action:

  • The political boundary overlay, which allows the user to see an approximation of the delta/change their locality creates to the bay, lends itself well to political calls to action since the user could see (1) how they are being failed by poor leadership upstream, and (2) how their localities leadership impacts things the user cares about downstream. The political boundaries could be linked to political data (eg: county and state government offices and officials).
  • The user would be empowered with data.
  • The user will want to become a tester, because they can see how powerful the data is in telling the full story.

What's next for Upstream / One Stream / Downstream

We developed this idea for a prototype in a day and aren't designers - we know this isn't a complete project and there is plenty of room to build this out with real data and wireframes. There are a variety of potential long term spinoffs for the website if it were successfully implemented: User-Driven Engagement: Have a critical mass of people doing testing, and have a number of users also adding to the platform in other helpful ways. These could include: :

  • Integrating more data layers, such as business information (eg: firm-level data on farms and factories), ecological data (eg: bird netting zones), etc.
  • Adding supplemental information which empower political calls-to-action (eg: government contact information, if environmental positions exist or are unfilled, if bills or ordinances are up for a decision/vote, etc.)
  • Using the centralized data as a means to conduct independent research (eg: modeling theoretical economic concepts with real-world data, drafting data-informed policy proposals, etc.)

Replicability: The website and its infrastructure could be replicated as a “plug and play” solution, and implemented for other regions/watersheds, domestic or international.

Youth Engagement: The smoothest on-ramp to scaling testing is by having students (either college, high school, middle school, or elementary) engage in testing. This could be administered by nonprofit or government partners, and would have several benefits:

  • Relevant tie-in to existing curriculum
  • Public funding/infrastructure available (field trips, buses, teachers, technology access, etc.)
  • Strong investment (good opportunity to change minds early in life)
  • Builds user base at scale. Focusing on youth would also create a strong potential synergy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are designed to give youth (“generation 2030”) the buy-in and agency to create solutions to the world’s problems.Goal 6 of the SDGs relates specifically to water quality, and ensuring “availability and sanitation for all.” Many of the World’s most polluted rivers are in the developing world, and the value-add for clean water policy implementation would be even greater if taken abroad. A human-centered design approach giving youth the agency to drive water cleanliness would align perfectly with the SDGs, and is worth strong consideration for scalability.

Gamification: Sustaining testing at scale presents a major challenge, but that could potentially be solved with an application. An app could have the following benefits:

  • Users could track and contextualize their testing, getting the satisfaction of seeing their data directly impact the system’s data (like PokemonGo, but for science)
  • Users could show off their activism by enabling cross-posting to social media (showing that they are doing something, not just talking about it)
  • Users could receive potential rewards/compensation for tests. Funders could see how compensation impacts testing volume, and make informed funding decisions.
  • Sponsors would have natural tie-ins when it comes to corporate social responsibility (eg: Vegan Burger Co. provides free burger voucher for users who do their first test)
  • Users would have a potential social component, where they could engage with others over chat, share photos, etc.
  • The app could be integrated with a learning component, especially if targeting youth.

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