What you can do about climate change

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Climate change is the largest crisis humanity has ever faced. It will necessarily reshape the entire infrastructure of civilization one way or another, and magnifies many other issues that people care about (environmental, racial, and economic justice, animal rights, etc.).

It’s terrifying. I find just thinking about it to be overwhelming, and often paralyzing, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Telling people to be worried without giving them constructive options isn’t super useful, so I wanted to share real, achievable, evidence-based actions for people who want to help, but don’t know where to begin.[1] I’m not an expert on any of these topics, but I recently re-broadcast some priorities I’d heard elsewhere.



  • Vote & make calls: policy is one of the largest levers we have. Make your voice heard. Tell your representatives and candidates that this is a top priority.
  • Advocate for radical city redesign to increase density and provide alternate transit options. Density is the #1 way to achieve lower environmental impact via benefits via heating & cooling, transit, slowing population growth, etc.


  • drive less
  • eat less beef
  • insulate your house

To get further clarity and more ideas, I asked my dear friend and green design expert Jer Faludi[2] for input. He was kind enough to write up a ranked list of suggestions for individual scale and large-scale impact, based on a series of thoroughly researched short videos he’s made, discussing the most impactful ways to make a difference.

Here’s what Jer said, lightly edited for clarity.

Your 3-item list is good for individuals making lifestyle changes, except I’d say:

#1 eat more veggies & less beef

#2 insulate your house or move into an apartment complex

#3 walk/bus/bike more

#4 get rooftop solar

To shoot higher, I’d say this: if you could invent or design anything to improve the state of the Earth, fixing not just greenhouse gases but also species extinction, water & resource depletion, pollution, here are your top priorities to help the planet.

  • Better cities:
    • make them more dense
    • create better transit options
  • Better buildings:
    • improve energy use, health, and material resource use
  • Better food:
    • improve land efficiency is #1
    • then pesticides & fertilizers
    • avoid beef, make veggie menus awesome,
    • invent cheap organic aquaponics, etc.
  • Cheaper clean energy
    • lower cost of grid energy storage is #1,
    • then solar & wind
  • Efficient transport of people (not things – shipping is a pretty low priority)
    • encourage walking, biking, transit, & telecommuting
  • Slow population growth
    • fixed by urbanizing & by empowering women via education, economics, and politics, especially in developing countries. Birth control alone is not enough.
  • For social sustainability,
    • fix income inequality, both globally and within the US
  • For political sustainability, fix voting mechanics
    • maximize the percent of the governed whose votes count, via proportional representation, ranked choice voting, no gerrymandering, campaign finance reform

Example solution areas:

– The #1 leverage point is actually to make cities denser and more livable: dense cities improve building energy & resource use (shared walls are better than the best insulation), fix transportation (walking, biking, and transit require density), and slow population growth (in many developing countries, birthrates fall by 1/2 or more from rural to urban), all at once. Make density affordable, politically easy, beautiful, and healthy.

– Many sustainability improvements already save people & companies money (like better buildings, clean energy, and efficient transport), they just require initial investments. Business models exist to enable this; scale them.

– You do not need to work in one of these industries to improve it, you can make an app for that. For example, the Google Maps transit feature has done more to increase transit use than any design project by any city transit agency.

Finally, I’m a huge fan of Alex Steffen’s writing about climate change. A take away from Alex: we can’t build a world we can’t imagine. We desperately need imaginative people to dream up and communicate how good the world will be. If you’re creative, start telling optimistic stories and inspiring the builders.

There is no single answer. We need all of the solutions. Find something you can do and contribute in your way as best you can. We need a lot of heroes.

Update: since writing this, I’ve been pointed to the excellent http://www.drawdown.org

[1] One of my first exposures to this sort of global to-do list was Bret Victor’s essay What Can a Technologist Do About Climate Change?

[2] In the fall of 2017, Jeremy Faludi will be joining Dartmouth University as a Assistant Professor of Green Design. He has a PhD from Berkeley in mechanical engineering, a Master’s from Stanford in product design, and a Bachelor’s in physics from Reed College. He dances often, and literally plays with fire.

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Guaranteed Successful Design talk

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I gave a fun (and useful?) lightning talk at Startupfest Montreal 2016, and Ignite Seattle, and a full-length version at the O’Reilly Design Conference, entitled Guaranteed Successful Design. I hope you find it useful and/or entertaining.

Here’s the slide deck with notes and 5 minute video from Ignite Seattle.


Here’s the full-length slide deck and 45 minute video from the O’Reilly Design Conference 2017.

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Mapping Migration critique

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A friend asked me what I thought about the NYT Mapping Migration visualization.

It’s interesting that they note this is a new (experimental) kind of visualization; frankly I think it doesn’t work very well.

To review, you (well, I) do visualization like this (one tweet version; hours long version).

In this case, it feels more like they had a structure they wanted to use (well, two structures, treemap and geographic map, they wanted to mash up and use). So that’s a fundamental design failure because structure drives meaning so strongly, you really ought to pick structure in response to your purpose, not structure first. But this seems structure-driven, not purpose-driven.

If I were to communicate this same information I’d say the purpose is to show the relative proportions of origins of each state’s population. Now a geographic map is a bad way to talk about population in general, because geographic size has nothing to do with population (NJ has about 10x the population and 1,000x the population density of Alaska), and so you get all kinds of accidental distortion. However, geographic maps are really good at showing things like regional trends, so there may be some value there.

So how to show proportion per state and also maintain regional relevance? For proportion a classic tree map (subdivided rectangular area, not Voronoi), or even pie graph, per state could work; they almost got that right. Instead of using the geographical shape of each state, each state could be represented with a size proportional to its population with a cartogram, similar to how the electoral vote results maps work.

The result would be the largest square for California, smaller squares for other states. Each state square would be subdivided into regional areas, each area proportional to population origin and colored as they have them here. If it was me, I’d use consistent placement for the colors, yellow/west always on the left, red/east always on the right, etc.

If you wanted to do something other than a tree map, bar graphs (either stacked or side by side) per state would work perfectly well too, but that’s a little harder to implement and keep the geographical relevance.

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How to pick a graph

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I just tweeted this:
Step 5: What graph do I use?
4: What data matters?
3: What Q’s need answering?
2: What actions do I need to inform?
1: What do I care about?

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Visualization errors to avoid

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I wrote a blog post on avoiding visualization errors over at Information Week.

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Looper timeline

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I drew a timeline of the film Looper for Wired. It’s made of spoilers.

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SeaVis: The Seattle Visualization List and Meetup

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I’ve been running the Seattle visualization meetup since late 2012. We’ve got a Google Group for jobs and announcements and a Meetup group for events. Please join both!

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Four Pillars of Visualization

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Please enjoy content based on my Four Pillars of Visualization design principles. I hope you find it useful. The best way to reach me to provide errata and feedback is on twitter.

The Four Pillars are:

  1. Purpose (the why)
  2. Content (the what)
  3. Structure (the how)
  4. Formatting (everything else)

Here are the resources. I’ll update this page as new material comes online. Everything is free.

  • A recordings of me presenting the Four Pillars
  • The first public talk I gave about the Four Pillars.
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Unbroken Excel

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Because I mention it all the time, here’s Cole Nussbaumer‘s template for good Excel graphs, where she’s fixed all of the bad Excel defaults.

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Big news, new job at IBM… and moved on.

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Updated update: I’m no longer with IBM, and have taken a job in Settle with AWS.

Hello dear readers,

Just a quick note here to mention my new FT gig; I’m now working as a Visualization Expert at IBM’s Center for Advanced Visualization. Part of my role involves continuing to speak at conferences and events as I have been, and various other writing projects. Additionally, I’ll be working on a book for IBM (details TBD), writing some visualization white papers, blog posts, and other materials related to IBM’s visualization projects, and working with the fantastic teams who are devloping IBM’s public visualization tool Many Eyes and their new (unreleased) visualization engine RAVE.

I’m delighted by this new role. As I’ve been ramping up at IBM I haven’t been publishing as much externally, but will be posting links to my writing and presentations here and on twitter (@noahi) as they become available.

Best, Noah

UPDATE: Yes, I’m staying in Seattle.

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