The annual traversing of the globe by millions of migratory birds—often from one hemisphere to the other and back again—is one of the coolest and craziest feats of nature, putting our planet into perspective from an ecological point of view. But as a human down on the ground, the magnitude of this instinct-driven undertaking is truly incomprehensible; spotting a few flocks of geese overhead as they fly south in the fall doesn’t do it justice. I’d need to visualize these yearly mass migrations if I were to gain and share a more comprehensive, gravity-defying appreciation of these amazing animals. Cue Processing, a Java-based prototyping language made especially for visualizing data and making it interactive.
Project pretext: Academic
Assignment: Create an interactive digital data visualization
Timeframe: 5 weeks
Visually, I needed to account for a number of variables. At minimum: time over a year, location on the earth, and bird species.
I didn’t want to visualize migration patterns that had already been identified and distilled into cleaned-up models: this would be substituting a second-hand proxy for real migration events. So I’d have to find trustable data representing real birds, and plenty of it.
To learn how to use Processing, I built small “sketches”: Processing-speak for small, quickly made modules exploring single concepts. Each examined a different functionality available through the Processing language, such as random motion, counting, and click-functionality.
My search for quality data led me to the website of Cornell University’s well-renowned ornithology program. They offer a platform for birdwatchers all over the world to track their sightings, including data points such as the bird’s species, number of birds sighted, date/time, and precise location pinpointed by latitude and longitude. The dataset can be filtered by species and downloaded for free. My initial plan allowed my users to search and filter the app I’d build by any species they wanted, so I attempted to download the entire set of data for all birds ever sighted and recorded. But when my computer crashed every time I tried, I realized I’d have to work with a smaller set of data, so I chose a subset of species to represent various migration patterns.
Time, location, and bird species remained the most important pieces of data for the visualization. I sketched to explore how the relationships between this data could be laid out on a screen and considered what the user might learn if they could manipulate each of the data types in some way. Would the ability to change the speed at which time was visualized enhance the user’s understanding of migration? What about the capacity to zoom in or out of a specific area, or filter by species?
I iterated on the idea of showing location on a globe that the user could spin or zoom in on. The globe’s 2-D circle shape could double as a year-long clock, allowing the user to scrub around the perimeter that portrayed a year at their own pace, while dots representing bird sightings moved. The center of the screen could act as a search bar with a type-ahead system, where the user could look for various bird species.
My final design incorporated elements of my sketches, but lack of time and technical ability prevented me from building interactivity into all of the data’s dimensions. I prioritized interactions relating to which species were shown over interactions regarding clock speed and location-zooming: allowing the user to choose which migration paths they observed might encourage comparison and critical thinking about species’ behaviors.
I started building the visualization in distinct, rough sketches, each constituting a single chunk of functionality. After I refined each sketch individually, I incorporated them into a single Processing file.
Once I had pulled together all the functionality-related code, I identified repeated variables I’d need to visually refine, such as colors and the sizes of dots and buttons. Rather than modifying the individual RGB coordinates for a certain color everywhere it occurred in the code, I instead assigned it a named variable, such as cerulean. I made a separate file to hold these named variables’ values, which enabled me to quickly explore and tweak visual treatments: a single change to cerulean’s RGB value affected every place it occurred in the code.
As a self-identified color nerd, I completely geeked out when I established the color scheme for the dots that portray each of the 25 bird species I had selected. Bright colors would easily stand out against the gray background I had assigned to the map, so I evenly distributed 25 circles around the perimeter of an RGB color wheel to ensure each color was as far from its neighbors as possible, thereby mitigating color misidentification on the map. Some colors, like the greens, were too similar to sufficiently distinguish from one another optically, so I manually adjusted them. Then I attempted to assign each of the bird species a color that complimented part of its plumage or alluded to its name, and made sure that neighboring colors went to birds with differing migration paths to prevent similar colors from overlapping and causing confusion.
I wanted to incorporate a visual depiction of each of the bird species to help users mentally connect the moving dots on the map to the animals they stood for. I created illustrations rather than using photos found elsewhere so I that could incorporate each bird’s assigned color and build a stronger association between it and the dots representing it. A playful, geometric illustration style appealed to me in part because it would blend in well with the UI’s other form factors like the circles of the clock and buttons, and the flat, vector-based map.
The name for the visualization came to me in the middle of the project … and at the height of the Angry Birds craze (inspiration can come from anything, they say!). I felt the name Worldly Birds succinctly summed up the stories told by each trail of dots. I knew data visualization was capable of clarifying information and lending it context, but before I saw the numbers from my spreadsheets appear as roaming dots on the map, I didn’t fully realize the power that it also possessed for storytelling. I found myself imagining arctic terns stopping for snack breaks at island outcroppings and penguins preparing to dive in and lose sight of land for days at a time, all because of what the data revealed to me.
I wish I had tied in more of the science and rationale for why these birds migrate at all, and the physical traits they’ve evolved to efficiently do so. Along with names and illustrations, I’d love to have included information around how species’ habitats and feeding needs change seasonally, average body-length-to-wing-span ratios, and explanations of any other characteristics that help these birds on their journeys, like magnetoreception.* Extra details like these would give the user a fuller context and help them make deductive connections between animals’ needs and the form factors they’ve evolved.
*Magnetoreception is the ability to sense which direction is north, possessed by homing pigeons and other birds.