Designing For A Better Tomorrow.
The WorldWind Europa Challenge, an open-source competition hosted by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), aims to help address a major global issue, such as education, health, etc., through innovative design and use of data.
I, along with a team of four other interns, entered the competition. Through initial research, we discovered that there is a need for an application that would allow people of all ages, especially secondary school students, to explore large amounts of valuable, underused agriculture and climate data. This can potentially inspire people to become more aware of how Earth has changed over the years.
Design Solution Through The Use of Data.
I designed a web application that displays both climate and agriculture data trends on a global scale via an intuitive web interface.
My team and I created this web app partially as a platform for schools and non-profit organizations to use as an educational data-visualization tool.
Worked with four other interns, including two high school students, as the designer of the team.
Designed the user interface and possible interactions through datasets and any UI elements
Established the design roadmap of the application based on existing NASA data visualization applications and recommendations from NASA professionals
Business and Technical Constraints.
Must design and develop the app using the NASA Web World Wind Software Development Kit (SDK)
Virtually no budget due to the open-source nature of the project
Limited access to important datasets
No design mentor or anyone with a design background
Only one other intern on the team had a strong web development background
Nine-week deadline of design challenge
Tools I Used.
Brainstorming, wireframing, & prototyping
Adobe Illustrator, Sketch, whiteboard, markers
For front-end development and live prototyping
Conducting Initial Research.
Because this project was a standalone design challenge, there was no user metrics to leverage during the research phase of the internship.
Instead, I conducted informal stakeholder interviews with NASA professionals with different backgrounds to gain insights on possible ideas for the project.
Some of the ideas we came up with were:
- Lesson plan
- Prepared for secondary school teachers to use as a guide for the app.
- Renewable energy
- Estimate the optimal type of renewable energy in a region based on existing data.
- Natural disasters
- Show the average number of certain disasters for a region based on casualties, costs, etc.
- Agriculture and weather - climate change
- Visualize possible historical trends and correlations between the two different types of data.
After countless hours of closed-door meetings and numerous ideas for the project, we collectively decided on the last option along with the lesson plan due to a few key reasons:
Importance and potential impact
Supporting scientific research on the effect of climate change on agriculture on a global scale
Educational impact on students, and they are the future of our world
The large amount of data that was publicly accessible
Brainstorming and Exploring the Subject Matter.
Here I designed some initial concept storyboards while my team and I were in the process of uncovering which features and components were technically feasible and which ones were not.
We ended up reiterating on this kid-friendly concept and gave the app a more professional look. We also removed the tutorial process because we thought that the app needed to be self-explanatory rather than relying on an elaborate, guided tutorial.
What followed was two full weeks of data scavenging and product feature planning through sketches, concept storyboards, and iterative mockups.
Most of the datasets we gathered were public and start from the early 1900s.
The most difficult part of this process was finding reliable and usable datasets from smaller countries and countries during times of war (Ex: China, Russia, African countries).
Designing User Personas.
My team and I derived these personas through continued stakeholder interviews at our NASA division!
Here’s a scenario of both a teacher and students using the app!
Sketching and Outlining Features.
My responsibilities in the ideation phase involved deciding how and where datasets would show up on the side navigation and on the Earth model. I also implemented appropriate affordances, such as clickable icons, on the globe so users can easily interact with the available datasets.
Throughout the design process, I periodically referred to features of existing NASA data visualization applications and communicated with program managers and engineers to ensure that I included the essential features that would make this application successful. This was extremely important given the nine-week duration of the internship.
One huge constraint we faced was the lacking amount of data that was available to us to implement. Because this was an open-source project, we did not have the privilege to access more weather data than we would like.
Then we began the coding process...
Iterative Design and Usability Testing.
I also conducted several rounds of usability testing in-person and via Skype with our target users with a variety of computer proficiency. I made it very clear to my team members that it was essential to validate our application with potential users. Doing so would allow us to discover bugs and to see whether the app would be useful and usable in a realistic setting.
Results of the usability tests allowed us to:
Reduce the initial load time and dataset load times
Add some more clear descriptions for datasets (to eliminate confusion for those who are not familiar with certain climate/agriculture nomenclatures)
Implement the ability to view multiple datasets simultaneously and side-by-side
Throughout the design and development phase and near the end of the competition submission deadline, I completed two key tasks:
I tested the application and its features on different browsers (Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and MS Edge.)
I added concise, yet easy-to-understand comments in my CSS and jQuery code in case any future developers wanted to add to our app.
After nine long weeks, the application was finally complete. The application runs both on desktop browsers and mobile (tablets and smartphones) using Bootstrap. This is to make it accessible to as many people as possible.
You can watch the mobile demo here (external YouTube video).
Typography and Color.
Design Results and International Competition.
The finished application was awarded first place in the WorldWind Europa Challenge as well as the winner of the GODAN Open Data Challenge. I also presented the application with my team at the annual NASA summer research project symposium at NASA Ames Research Center.
We were offered an expense-paid trip to Helsinki, Finland to compete in the finals against eleven other finalist teams at the Nokia HQ. I, along with my team, presented our application to a large group of technical experts and executives in Europe.
The application piqued the interest of non-profit organizations in Europe. They contacted us interested in using the app as a platform to spread the awareness of the value of 3D data visualization, especially in regards to climate and agriculture data, and to seek to sponsor the application for greater use.
What I Learned.
Prototyping in code and developing my own designs have their own set of challenges.
Prototyping in a design tool like Sketch is an essential skill for a UX designer to have. However, creating the same interactions with mid-to-high visual fidelity in code presented its own difficulties. For example, I found, many times during the development process, that some interface elements and interactions were extremely difficult to recreate. In addition, certain aspects of the design had to be changed given the technical limitations of the SDK and code libraries we used.
Communication between stakeholders and team members is critical.
As a designer, I often gathered insights from my team members and other stakeholders in the NASA division I worked in. They brought with them their own diverse skill sets and experiences, and they helped me out during key design decisions. This saved me a tremendous amount of time conducting research and boosted the success of the application.
Business constraints can be a pain.
Due to the open-source nature of this project, my team members and I received virtually no budget to build this application. The only resources that were available to us were the Internet and the stakeholders in our NASA division. This is why there were some aspects of this web app that I felt could have been improved if we had more time and resources. For example, we were not able to find enough data for ocean temperature, the amount of shrinking ice sheets and snow cover, etc.
However, by the end of the internship, I still felt more independent as a designer and I am glad that I gained experience working in such an environment. Despite this, I realized that there were many things that I could have done better on the app, but hindsight is always 20/20!
Mishra, V., & Cherkauer, K. A. (2010). Retrospective droughts in the crop growing season: Implications to corn and soybean yield in the Midwestern United States. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 150(7-8), 1030-1045.
Parry, Martin L., et al. "Effects of climate change on global food production under SRES emissions and socio-economic scenarios." Global environmental change 14.1 (2004): 53-67.
Zhao, Chuang, et al. "Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114.35 (2017): 9326-9331.
Special Thanks To:
Patrick Hogan, Former NASA World Wind Program Manager
John Nguyen, Intern
Stacey Chen, Intern
Atreya Iyer, Intern
Nick Rubel, Intern
Miguel Del Castillo, NASA Software Developer