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April 2012 Archives

Do It for the Polar Bears

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Institute on the Environment communications director Todd Reubold hates nothing more than bad PowerPoint presentations. Realizing that not everyone shares his strong feelings, Reubold began his recent Frontiers in the Environment presentation about communicating science with something he knew his audience would care passionately about. Rising sea levels caused by global warming reduce sea ice needed by polar bears. The electricity required for the estimated 30,000,000 slide presentations given each day around the world results in about 94 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions each year. If presentations induce audiences to sleep and fail to inspire them to respond to global climate change, then the energy used only hurts those polar bears. The bottom line, according to Reubold, is that slide presentations had better make an impact. 

Since people remember just 10 percent of what they hear but 65 percent of what they see AND hear, the ubiquity of the slide deck makes sense. The beautiful and arresting photos that are part of Reubold's slide deck - of a still-smoking remnant of Amazon rainforest, an oil derrick against a blue horizon or a group of children rapt at story hour - illustrate the power of visual communication. Take a look at Reubold's own slides in "Fight the Power(point)" or peruse through the Frontiers in the Environment archives, which let you see both past presenters and their slide decks.

An audience member at Reubold's Frontiers talk asked whether crafting a good presentation requires professional staff or years of training. That helps, Reubold said - but added with a laugh that simply attending to some basic principles would go a long way toward saving those bears. Easy stuff. 

  • Never, ever, use clip art
  • Focus on what you want your audience to learn from each slide
  • Use one main point per slide
  • Solid white, black, dark gray - that's all that you need
  • Let some of your emotion in
  • Think of a presentation as being on stage and move around
Above all, Reubold says, just simplify.

To learn more, download Presentation Best Practices, Reubold's list of tips and additional resources.

Photo courtesy Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

Can We Make Plastics Sustainable?

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Plastics are a vital part of our lives, but they also are rife with adverse environmental impacts. What to do? In this fast-paced three-minute video, IonE and the Center for Sustainable Polymers explore how we can enjoy the benefits of plastics and keep our planet healthy, too.

Have another three minutes? Check out these Big Question videos exploring solutions to other top environmental issues of our time:
Big Question: Feast or Famine? 
Big Question: What is Nature Worth?
Big Question: Is Earth Past the Tipping Point? 

Terra Populus

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map.jpgFor a health project she was working on, University of Minnesota sociologist Anne Meier needed to know the average elevation, temperature and rainfall by district in Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. Tracy Kugler, a research associate at the Minnesota Population Center, was happy to oblige. After about 20 hours of gathering, organizing, integrating, and processing data from a half-dozen separate databases, she was able to hand over Meier the information she needed.

And that, Kugler says, is why she's spending much of the rest of her time helping to get a massive new population and environment database known as Terra Populus - TerraPop for short - up and running. If TerraPop had been in place, Meier not only could have gathered her own data, she could have done it in well under an hour.

TerraPop is a massive initiative of the Minnesota Population Center, the Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota Libraries, and faculty from the College of Liberal Arts and College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, along with collaborators from Columbia University and the University of Michigan. Funded by an $8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project is gathering land cover, land use, climate and census data from around the world and across two centuries into a common database that researchers anywhere can use to answer questions about complex relationships between people and their environment. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge TerraPop faces is figuring out how to get data from many different places, gathered at many different scales, at many different times, for many different parameters, and in many different formats, together in a way that provides meaningful information.

Initially, the database will bring together individual- and household-level from selected countries, aggregated population data, and climate, and land use and land cover data. At later stages, the TerraPop team plans to expand the database to include census data from additional countries, additional environmental data, and additional dimensions of human data, such as economic and health data. A prototype system is scheduled to be available for beta-testing in spring 2013, and should be available to the public around the end of 2013.

"We expect that the system will be valuable to researchers in multiple disciplines, including sociology, demography, climatology, geography, environmental sciences, epidemiology, as well as cross-disciplinary research communities concerned with human-environment interactions, such as environmental justice, landscape ecology, hazards, sustainability, and health, and natural resources management," Kugler says. "Our overall goal is to lower the data acquisition and processing barriers involved in studying questions of how people interact with the environment."

Like to learn more about TerraPop, join the development community or be part of the beta test group? Check out TerraPop's website at www.terrapop.org.

Listen to a description of the TerraPop project here:


Image courtesy of Carlaarena

A Pioneer for the Planet

dangermond.jpgThe Institute on the Environment had the privilege this week of welcoming geographic information systems pioneer Jack Dangermond as its first Distinguished Visiting Fellow. A 1968 graduate of the University of Minnesota's architecture program, Dangermond is co-founder and president of the mapping software giant Esri.

As part of his visit, Dangermond gave a public presentation on the role of mapping and geographic analysis in collaboration and decision making. In it, he underscored the importance of geospatial systems in shaping our planet's future.

dangermond2.jpg"We're living in a time that is unparalleled in the human history of the world," he told his audience at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "It could go multiple ways. It could burn out. We could just blink away. Or we could become more conscious and look at our footprints and change the world." Geospatial systems, Dangermond said, can make a big difference in which trajectory we take because it allows us to see patterns, relationships and processes and derive from raw data the knowledge we need to make planet-saving decisions.

Dangermond said he sees exciting times ahead as map-making takes advantage of mobile media, crowdsourcing, 3D capabilities and other emerging technologies and trends.

"Geospatial information well told," he said, "I think can change the world."

Like to learn more about Dangermond's visionary approach to mapping and life? Check out the video of his presentation here.

2 Billion More Coming to Dinner

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science on a sphere.jpgBY JOHN GORDON

Whether the planet is ready for it or not, by 2050 approximately 9 billion people will be living on Earth.

How can we expect to support 9 billion, when today we struggle to feed 7 billion?

There's not an easy answer to that question. But a Discovery Grant from the Institute on the Environment has made it possible for the Science Museum of Minnesota to at least break it down into an entertaining 9-minute film.

The issue of food production is complicated by the fact that we already use about 40 percent of Earth's land surface for agriculture, and there simply isn't much available arable land left. Increasing global cropland area would require clearing natural ecosystems and destroying the valuable services they provide.

Formatted for spherical displays (such as the Science on a Sphere and Magic Planet systems), the new film, "2 Billion More Coming to Dinner," features data sets developed by IonE's Global Landscapes Initiative, and presents challenges and potential solutions for our hungry planet.

How is global cropland distributed, and exactly how much does each area produce? With ideal fertilization and irrigation, how much could each area produce? Which regions show the greatest gap between current and potential production, and what would it take to close that gap, maximizing food production? Spherical visualizations and a conversational narrative style address each of these questions in the film.

2 Billion More Coming to Dinner" also considers what kinds of food we eat. To support the animals that feed us, a significant amount of cropland is devoted to producing animal feed instead of human food. A "food vs. feed" GLI data set is visualized as a global map of who produces crops mostly for direct consumption by people, and whose cropland is largely used for growing animal feed. Without offering a direct course of action, the film allows viewers to consider the data and how it might apply to their behavior.

How can you become one of these viewers? You'll soon be able to find "2 Billion More Coming to Dinner" at one of the world's 80 Science on a Sphere installations. Also, the film and its associated data sets will soon be available for free download from the Science Museum of Minnesota at sciencebuzz.org/earth. It's a fun showcase of a small part of IonE and GLI's work, and we hope people enjoy it!

A Design Concept Whose Time Has Come?

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green_leaves.jpgManufacturing is often perceived as a downward-spiraling one-way street: Choose raw materials with little or no consideration of the environmental or health impacts; use energy to make products from them; use more energy to distribute, market and use the products; then throw everything - whether packaging or product - away when it's outlasted its usefulness.

Wrong, Chuck Bennett told a full house at this week's Frontiers in the Environment event: "We have a system problem - the cradle-to-grave industrial paradigm."

Vice president of Earth and community care at Aveda, an international personal care products company, Bennett believes in - and pursues - a better way, based on the principles and practices made famous a decade ago by Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things.

The Cradle to Cradle approach, Bennett told his audience, is built on three premises:

Waste = Food

Use Current Solar Energy

Celebrate Diversity

Waste = food, Bennett said, is a matter of mimicking nature, where the products of one activity become the inputs for another. In nature's economy, he said, materials are continuously recycled; Cradle to Cradle brings this thinking to the industrial economy as well.
Using current solar energy is a matter of tapping the sun's resources now rather than relying on the limited supplies of fossil fuels. Celebrating diversity - a concept Bennett said is central to the Aveda brand - means valuing the richness inherent in biological, cultural and conceptual systems.

"All of this translates to a bigger vision for the company," Bennett said.  

Like to learn more? Check out the video of Bennett's talk, "Cradle-to-Cradle: A Design Concept Whose Time Has Come?" here.

Are We Getting Enough Crop per Drop?

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kate_award.jpgCongratulations to IonE Global Landscapes Initiative postdoctoral fellow Kate Brauman, who won a Best Early Career Poster award at the Planet Under Pressure meeting in London last week. Attended by thousands of environmental scientists, policy makers and executives from around the world, Planet Under Pressure has been called the most important global environmental science conference in recent years.

Thumbnail image for kab_pup.jpgThe poster, entitled "Water Wise: Are We Getting Enough Crop per Drop?", describes Kate's work characterizing differences in agricultural water use with respect to location, climate and crop. Judges appreciated the poster's strong story, great graphics and limited amount of text as well as the pivotal message: We have tremendous opportunities to make better use of our water resources as we work to meet the growing demands of a growing global population.

The prize-winning poster earned Kate a ribbon, a book, a subscription to a sustainability journal, and a handshake from astronaut Piers Sellers.

To learn more about Kate's great work, watch a presentation on the topic she gave in February as part of IonE's Frontiers in the Environment not-your-usual lecture series.  

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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