A Dashboard for Planet Earth

A new way of looking at storytelling in data visualization.

I wrote a feature for Nightingale about one of my favourite environmental visualizations, the planetary boundaries graphic - going from its origins as a tablecloth to spawning a new form of economic thinking. It’s a great case study in how even a flawed visualization can have an outsize impact on the world.

Here’s a excerpt, from a section where the coordinator of the international Planetary Boundaries Research Network critiques the chart. She doesn’t pull her punches:

Cornell’s list of criticisms is long — that the picture and its caption equates risk and uncertainty, that the traffic light colours create a muddle between “uncertainty about variability in biophysical processes” and “risk to people”, that the yellow zone throws together all kinds and sources of uncertainty, that the split wedges look half as important as the full wedges, that some people interpret it as a pie chart, that others think there must be meaning in the sequencing of the boundaries, and particularly that that different wedges don’t have a common metric but many people think they do.

The rest of the article covers the origins of the graphic as a tablecloth and the new form of economic thinking that it has spawned, among other things. You should read it.