Discovery Channel launches app to tackle climate change

Rich Web app lets users see real-time satellite data on polar melting, other changes

The Discovery Channel yesterday launched a new 3-D Rich Internet Application (RIA) called Earth Live that allows users to interact with scientific data and visualize events such as climate change and polar melting in real time.

Earth Live shows 1-day-old scientific data collected from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and lets users layer that data with different characteristics like chemical emissions, cloud coverage, rainfall or temperatures to see how these factors affect the Earth, noted Randy Rieland, senior vice president of digital media at the Discovery Channel.

For example, users can track storms in real time or track how increasing temperatures at the polar ice caps threaten to raise sea levels, he said.

"The real goal is to have people interact with this sort of information and do something meaningful with it so it is not just looking at something on a map," Rieland said. "This is based on real satellite data reflecting yesterday's [conditions]. People are able to mix these layers and ideally be able to see correlations among the different things that are happening ... with aerosols from satellite photos, you can see how they are related to sea surface temperatures."

In addition to the 3-D rendering with satellite data, the application will also provide a feature called "Field Reports" which will include blogs or podcasts from scientists about their research, he added.

"It is science in progress ... to reinforce this notion that research is going on at all time," Rieland said. "It is to make this whole experience feel more organic and more dynamic and more plugged into the real world."

The application was created by EffectiveUI, a design and development firm that builds RIAs using Adobe Systems' Flex open-source development tool and Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), which allows RIAs to run offline. The Earth Live application, however, only runs online.

Anthony Franco, president of EffectiveUI, said that one of the challenges in building the application was to make it easy for users to interact with complicated data sets. "A lot of the data is coming from NASA and NOAA, and it takes rocket scientist to manipulate and look through [it]," he said. "The challenge for us was to summarize the data so it doesn't require a rocket scientist to play with it. The globe is very easy to manipulate, and it is simple to add layers.

In addition, Discovery Channel created a widget of the application so that users can embed it in MySpace, Facebook or their own blogs to "evangelize the application," he noted.

Currently, creating a widget is the only way to save a user-created customized 3-D rendering. Rieland said that Discovery would like to create an archiving capability so that the models created can be saved.

He also noted that for the application to be successful, it will need to be supported by a community of users with a shared interest who use the tool to connect with one another.

"If we can only create pretty pictures on a globe, it won't last long," Rieland added. "We need to make sure we keep it fresh and dynamic. It has to be a place that feels alive and not just a beautiful display."

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