Art, Data Visualization, Maps

Printing Hurricanes as Gifts

We had a very busy month of August at SpatialKey as Hurricane Irene tore through the east coast. Our insurance customers were constantly watching Irene as it built up and approached land, then as it swept through parts of North Carolina, Vermont, New York, etc, and then as it died out quietly. We were writing software to visualize hurricane forecasts in real-time, as the storm was approaching, and getting immediate feedback from our customers. It was all a bit stressful, but exhilarating.

I wanted to have some kind of gift of thanks to give to our most helpful customers, who worked closely with us, helping us develop our hurricane product. To be honest, it felt like we all weathered a storm together during that hectic week in August. We brainstormed on sending out shirts, or bags, or some other standard corporate gear, but none of it really felt like “us”. So I came up with a more unique gift that I think captures our culture.

This is a 3D model of Hurricane Irene. The height of the model represents the wind speed at that location. You can see there are 3 bands of different wind speeds. The outer band represents where wind speeds hit 39 mph, the next band represents 58 mph, and the third band represents 74 mph (hurricane force winds). Then running through the middle we have the path of the eye of the storm, and the height of that track represents the exact speed at that point in time (Irene got up to 120 mph).

I created the model by taking the GIS data straight from NOAA and using that to build up the 3D model by hand. Then I sent the 3D model off to Shapeways for printing. The printed version you see in the photos is made out of alumide, which is sort of a composite aluminum material.

For our customers who were working with us while Irene passed through, we hope this will be a nice reminder of the work we did. It’s just a little paperweight to sit on your desk, but for those who were watching Irene as it developed and keeping a very close eye on the footprint of the storm, I think it’s a nice memento.

A hurricane can be a difficult concept to understand. For those affected in its path, it’s an incredibly tangible, visceral thing. But for those watching from afar (like me, sitting in California), it’s less “real”. We hear the overly-dramatic news reports and the doom-and-gloom predictions, but it’s a purely theoretical experience. Having a little paperweight of the storm on my desk doesn’t really help me understand the true impact Irene had on all those folks along the east coast, but at least I can touch it.


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