Friday, June 5, 2009

Consider My Mind Blown

I was in class the other night, and I totally had my mind blown in the best possible way.

Back Story:
After several delays on January 28, 1986, Shuttle Challenger launched. In the second minute of its departure, the shuttle exploded/disintegrated. In retrospect, scientists were able to discern that extreme damage to the O rings were the root cause for the explosion.

That morning, engineers from Thiokol and NASA managers exchanged information regarding the launch. The engineers, based on their data, felt that it was unsafe to launch. Over 10 charts and graphs were sent between the two groups, the engineers desperately attempting to convince the NASA managers of their concerns. Below is an example of the types of visual information Thiokol sent over:

My smart and kind professor, Nancy Kaplan brought to the class' attention that the "story" Thiokol was trying to tell was not being properly revealed. What is their point in this graph? It's difficult to say. Thiokol didn't presenta strong enough argument about the dangers of the flight, and the NASA managers gave the go ahead that led to disaster.

DaVinci of Data:
Years later, enter the "daVinci of data" as the NYTimes calls him, Edward Tufte (hello, new nerd crush, this guy's work is awesome!)

Edward Tufte is renowned for taking data and turning them into visual displays that are one, and most importantly, conherent and bursting with vital information and two, beautiful.

Visual heirarchy:

He took the information that was sent between the Thiokol engineers and Nasa managers and reworked them. He figured out what was important and what was less so. Here's the graph that Tufte came up with:

I apologize for the low resolution. But the y axis is "amount of damage in O ring", and the x axis is "temperature increasing." And it becomes VERY OBVIOUS, with the data they have, that as the temperature goes down the O rings damage increases.

The data points are from like 53 degrees F to 84 degrees F, roughly. At the lowest recorded temperature, 53 degrees, they recorded the most damage to an O ring (level 4). This being the case---how could you launch a shuttle when it was only 26 degrees F outside?

The graph shows the "story" clearly and immediately. Good design saves lives. Tell that story the next time a lousy client belittles the significance of your profession.


Danielle said...

I remember this event vividly. It was heartbreaking on so many levels. If there is any silver lining to events like these, it is the information that can be learned from them. The importance of that can be seen today in efforts to retrieving the black boxes of the downed Air France flight. --Danielle

h. van de mark said...

I totally agree that something positive really out to come out of these tragedies, even if it is just learning how to prevent future ones.

I hadn't watched the launch originally, but I watched the original airings (CNN and ABC?) on YouTube after doing this project, and was surprised at how calm the tv announcers one. One guy was just like, and "Now there is some smoke. That appears to be the rocket booster, not the shuttle. We cannot see the shuttle."

But now, I'm sure it would be turned into some sort of crazy sensational event within seconds. A lot of screaming OH MY GOD--if not by the newscaster than by on lookers. People throwing out theories, people pointing fingers, etc.

Danielle said...

Absolutely. The agenda of the media has totally changed. However, at the time, there wasn't all these different media outlets that there are now. Also, the Challenger launch was a very big deal.

The first teacher in space....someone not a trained/career astronaut. Televisions were tuned in all across the country, in schools everywhere. I'm sure that played a large part in the rather calm demeanor of the commentary during the launch.

h. van de mark said...

I gosh, I completely forgot about the teacher. Ugh, what a mess. :(