California's Long Challenge with Drought

California's Long Challenge with Drought

Organisation: The Wall Street Journal (United States)

Publication Date: 04/09/2015



Data visualisation of the year (small newsroom, large newsroom). California continues to suffer from its worst drought in over 1,200 years. The Journal decided to chart the evolution of this most recent drought using not just on the most recent couple of months, but five full years of data. This required solving several technical challenges (described below) to turn a giant dataset into an animated map. The droughts were also tied to the number of people affected, adding important context for understanding California’s recent measures to curtail water usage, as “exceptional drought” made its way to populous areas around Los Angeles and San Francisco. The end result is a unique view of the state’s drastic environmental changes over time. (Project's start date: April 9, 2015)

Technologies used for this project:

The project was complicated because it required isolating California’s drought data from a giant collection on the entire U.S., then reducing the size of the file for consumption online. We accomplished the first task using PostGIS to programmatically process data from National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (assembled by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drought Monitor). From there, we needed to decide the appropriate mapping software. While brainstorming our approach, we thought about using tile-based map renderer Leaflet. We quickly realized this wasn't ideal because the functionality was not as robust or customizable. We decided on D3 because its map renderer is much more flexible and allowed us to fine-tune visualization. Finally, we encoded the data from GeoJSON to TopoJSON to reduce the amount of data and thus the file size, increasing performance on mobile and desktop.
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