Can data speak for Mother Earth? — issue #12

Can data speak for Mother Earth? — issue #12


"Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear." 

Richard Powers, The Overstory

Remember when the lockdowns began in March?
Amidst panic, we still found it in ourselves to marvel at how COVID-19 was helping the environment heal. In Punjab, residents finally glimpsed the Himalayas after three decades of polluted skies. China's shuttered power plants alone cut global carbon emissions by 11 percent.

It was a gentle yet powerful message
a reminder of the planet we may still save, if only we act in time.

This June, in Notes from the Equator, we ask ourselves what's at stake in how we talk about the environment.

While few would argue
we hope!that our environment is in grave danger today, many are unsure of what our societies and communities should focus on here in Asia. Our region faces unique challenges in environmental protection, and the question isn't an easy one.

Our plastic waste crisis and dependence on fossil fuels make changing habits and sustainable development essential. But narrowing on these can drown out other inconvenient truths too
such a when hydropower threatens livelihoods downstream or waste campaigns detract from debates on carbon policy.

Here at Kontinentalist, we love how data lets us hear the signal through the noise. Handled responsibly, data gives us clarity and common ground so we can move forwards together. We hope these articles offer you a starting point for thinking some of the toughest, most crucial decisions of our times.

Any environmental issues you feel we should devote more time to? Reach out at, and you'll have our ears.

Editor and Content Strategist

Dive into our stories!

If the Ivan Lim saga has proven anything, it's that Singaporeans never forget. We continue this proud tradition by keeping score of how vocal our 13th Parliament has been about raising climate issues.
Border closures have sparked panic-buying worldwide, highlighting how interconnected our food systems have become. We partnered with Open Development Mekong to understand how climate change will affect the Mekong river and the fish and rice it supportsthe two major food supplies in the region.
Our damage to the environment doesn't end just because we're home more. Nature continues to pay the price for our convenience, in the form of single-use plastics from food deliveries and increased electricity consumption.

Data vis spotlight: Radar chart

Also goes by: polar, spider, and web chart.
Purpose of this chart: Compare the impacts of two proposed routes. To use a radar chart, your variables have to be set against a scale
in this case, the impacts' level of significance (negligible, minor, moderate, major, and critical).

Depending on your data, the scale can be numerical as well. But be sure to space your numbers equally, with the smallest number at the center (i.e. 0, 2, 4, 6, 8). Adding your variables
in this case, the Land Transport Authority's assessment variablestransforms the chart into a spiderweb. Note that you need at least three variables for your chart to fill in properly. 

Then, the fun part begins! For each proposed route option, plot each variable to the scale, and watch as the options form a polygon. We've reduced the opacity of option two and overlaid it onto option one to make a comparison. From the chart, you can easily observe that both routes mostly result in moderate impacts, with the two outliers. Option one is predicted to have a critical impact on biodiversity during construction, whereas option two is predicted to have a major impact on aesthetics.

You might already notice a limitation of radar charts here. While great for identifying broad patterns like outliers, radar charts are less suited for making fine comparisons across variables. This is because radar charts use area
polygons in this caseas their visual encoding. A bar graph, in contrast, uses length to visualise the relative size of variables, making it easier for readers to make such comparisons than a radar chart's shapes.

Moreover, even the shape of the polygon can change depending on how you arrange your variables. This results in less accurate observations, because different shapes may highlight different variables. 

So when should you use a radar chart? They are great for making a big-picture comparison of a few options against a set of non-numerical criteria. If you have too many options for a radar chart but are still drawn to it, you can do it in small multiples instead of overlapping them.


Other related stories

Each month, we curate a list of content related to our newsletter's focus. Here's our pick of things to check out on the theme of the environment:
  • Combining infographics with illustrations is no child's play, much less having to design for young readers. Data visualisation designer Federica Fragapane explains how she draws on empathy in her design to connect with children in her latest book, Planet Earth: Infographics for Discovering our World.
  • By playing to a full house of plants, Barcelona's Liceu Opera poses an intriguing question, Does Nature serve Humanity, or are things the other way around?
  • Using simple up and down arrows, NYT effectively communicates how activities have increased or decreased because of COVID-19.
  • Take a moment to pause, breathe, and admire the sunset while listening to this podcast episode on...doing precisely that. Fun fact: we scheduled the newsletter so that you'll receive it at today's sunset.