The Earth Goes Live

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Just as Al Gore's global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth sprouted planetary consciousness, Discovery is doing its part to push climate change awareness to a global audience with a participatory web experience.

With its newly launched interactive application "Earth Live", the brand is providing a multifaceted, real-time visualization tool in the guise of a 720-degree movable 3D globe. With this wellspring of content, people can view news, watch footage of field research, see featured climate change-related "stories" and customize their own experience.

According to Discovery Communications SVP of Interactive Media Randy Rieland, the seeds for this initiative were planted early. "This goes back to something we had on our site years and years ago called 'Earth Alert.' It was in the very early days of the web and it was pretty rudimentary. It was a two-dimensional globe and it was a service where we paid a guy to just locate things that were happening around Earth. As simple as it was, there was something that was compelling about it. It stuck in my mind after it went away years ago and as we talked more about climate change, realizing all the things that are possible with web functionality now and the apps that can be created, we said Let's take another run at this but let's make it something that people can actually use."

Inspired by a visit with NASA and that agency's animated interpretations of raw data, Rieland and his Discovery team enlisted developer EffectiveUI, with whom they had worked with in the past, to help construct Earth Live. "We threw this challenge at them and said we want this to be something that's easy to update from our end and also something that people would come back to again and again. We were insistent that they make the globe three-dimensional. But it was something that was quite difficult for them. When you start to put animations on a three-dimensional image, it gets a lot more complicated. But our feeling was that if it were not three-dimensional, it's not going to work. So we worked through that. I was impressed with how [EffectiveUI] were able to create an interesting and innovative interface, but one that was pretty intuitive and dealt with a lot of data that people could figure out pretty quickly and use."

While the EffectiveUI team was busy with development, Discovery needed another resource to procure satellite data. "We found a woman who had worked at the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], a scientist, and she actually had created software that would be able to take the satellite data and render it," says Reiland. "She created this as something that she was doing initially for museums, where she'd take the satellite data and create animation. That's what she's done with us, and she's contracted with us to take this data and run it through her software and then we get the animation that will work on this globe."

Using the rotating globe, which can be moved by a mouse click and drag, visitors can view specific weather-centric events as they appear from an outer view of Earth in the "Featured Stories" section. The first set of inclusions were last week's tornado activity, but the archives go back to hurricane Katrina and even include a Biosphere, which lets users view a year in the life of Earth's weather cycle in the form of shifting colors and patterns.

But by using "Create a Story," visitors can drag and drop into their own personal menu a variety of recent weather activity including cloud cover, rainfall and sea surface temperature. Each layer one adds results in a shift in colors and patterns that reflect how one activity affects another. "'Create a story' is based on data that's generally 24 hours-old or less," Reiland explains. "Ideally, we want to have enough variety in those layers so that people can mix layers and start to see some correlations; like there is a connection between sea surface temperature and aerosol. The goal is to allow people to explore mixing these layers and combining them, and at the same time, getting a clear understanding of how so many things are interconnected." As a tie-in, Reiland notes users can turn their own 'story' into a Facebook widget or use code and plant it into their blogs by clicking the "share a story" option above the globe. "The cool thing is that once it's there, whatever layers you have there will update everyday based on the new layer that we launch on the globe. That's one way we hope to get people to understand climate change a little better and at the same time to be engaged with what this interface is."

While Discovery plans on continually adding layers that are both satellite and non-satellite data related, populating their "From the Field" with firsthand footage from researchers and expanding their climate change-related news coverage, the brand is also tying Earth Live into online and offline Discovery-related efforts. "There is a new network that Discovery Communications is launching this spring called Planet Green," Reiland says. "What they've done is taken what had been another digital network called Discovery Home and they're revamping it entirely. It's a network that will obviously be about green issues, but it's going to be almost a DIY-focused network. It's going to be more utilitarian and based on what you can do in your personal life and for your community. While we will drive people from Earth Live to the Planet Green site, last year, Discovery also bought this site Treehugger, a community-oriented green site, and we'll drive people there too. While that fulfills the functions of making people aware of these other sites of Discovery's, we also want them to drive from those sites to Earth Live. Our role is to focus on the science and real-world experiences and events of climate change."

Still, Reiland insists to those critics and that have already weighed in on Earth Live, Discovery is still in phase one. "We learned some lessons with this. Some of the feedback we've seen on it has been people saying why can't you zoom, why can't you do this and that. We'd love to do that. [laughs] But we're looking at phase two for that. It was very tricky to be able to get this stuff on the 3D globe. We wanted to get it out there and didn't want to spend a ton of more time gathering all this other functionality. We wanted to get this moving. But you want to, in some degree, see where people want it to go. You get people on the programming side and media side saying we know what's good for you. But some of the best advances have been things that have bubbled up from a community saying, what if you do this? That's what we're working on now so that we can keep this growing and keep it interesting so it's not just a pretty picture."

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