Informatics students make climate data easier to visualize

By Jessi Loerch Thursday, June 1, 2023

Climate change is a complex problem, and it's hard to grasp exactly how much carbon people are putting into the atmosphere. Policymakers who are trying to cut carbon emissions, however, need a good understanding of the current situation to help them make good decisions.

A group of University of Washington iSchool Informatics students is helping to make the decision-making process a little easier. (Pictured above, from left) Akshita Gundavarapu, Emily Smokoff, Erica Gordy, Audrey Dennis and Meghan Munagala are working with EcoDataLab, a small start-up in Berkeley, California, to create visualizations that show how much carbon is being added to the atmosphere and where it’s coming from. The goal is to drive policy change and to help government officials and individuals make informed decisions.

Capstone is a culminating project for iSchool students that gives them a chance to apply the skills they’ve learned to a real-world problem. In this case, the students are working with Ben Gould, EcoDataLab’s president, on his company’s work to use data science to address climate change.

Gould asked the students to make recommendations on EcoDataLab’s current dashboards, which provide info about carbon emissions for a specific area. He wanted the team to offer advice on how to improve the user experience. He also asked them to create additional dashboards to give policymakers more information.

The group reviewed the pages and talked to current EcoDataLab clients to help them focus their suggestions. They suggested changes that would make the pages easier to navigate and more accessible.

Additionally, they created three new deep-dive pages, providing information on transportation, housing and how an area’s carbon emissions compare to the rest of the United States.

The project did a good job of giving the team a real-life challenge. In their classwork, the students said a lot of projects had a clear start and finish, but that’s not what many people will encounter in their careers. Often, employees jump into a project that’s already under way.

“One of the challenges was that, when you’re working with a project that someone has already set up, it’s important to continue the same style,” Smokoff said. “We learned how they did the code, and we wrote it to match instead of shifting it.”

They also learned that when working with real-world data, it’s never as simple as it seems at first. Even if a data set looks perfect, there are always problems to solve. And working with city officials is a long process — longer than the team anticipated.

“The idea that something we are working on, someone across the country may be looking at in a few months is really exciting.”

“I’m really proud of how all the team members were ready to take on the challenges with this project,” Gundavarapu said. “Some of us are not that comfortable with code, but we set all our worries aside and asked for help when we needed it.”

Munagala agreed that working together was vital to the team’s success — and the fact that they were all involved with all aspects of the project will be helpful in future jobs.

“One thing I am going to take away from this,” she said, “is how you can work with people who have different roles. If you are a software engineer or a designer, you won’t do all the parts. But because I have done all the parts, as a data engineer, I will have better skills to understand other roles.”

The group emphasized that their iSchool education had prepared them well.

“A lot of what we learn in the iSchool is how to work with people,” Gordy said. “The work we do in this field is very collaborative. The iSchool has definitely prepared us to work with people with different skill sets.”

Gould of EcoDataLab has been impressed with the students’ skills and appreciates their work. The team is handing off their code for the new deep-dive pages and suggestions for improvements to the existing site, as well as documentation for their code changes. They’re including their recommendations for accessibility as well as all their user research.

“This project is letting us try out new ideas that we didn’t have the capacity to try out before,” Gould said. “We hadn’t had demand for clients because we haven’t been able to give them examples of the new deep-dive page.”

Gould says those new pages should be ready to go with only a few minor tweaks and that he expects to integrate most, if not all, of the students’ suggestions and work into the overall dashboard for clients. Gould believes that access to reliable information is the first step toward addressing climate change. The team’s work is helping make that information more easily accessible.

“This will actually be deployed, and that is really exciting,” Dennis said. “The idea that something we are working on, someone across the country may be looking at in a few months is really exciting.”

The students also appreciate working on a project with broader impacts.

“What drew us to this project is that we are all environmentally conscious and we care a lot about making sure that we’re leaving a good environmental footprint,” Gordy said. “We like that this project influences policy changes, and that EcoDataLab works with local governments across the U.S. who are trying to use carbon emission data to influence policy in their city.”