When the Exploratorium moved to Piers 15 and 17 back in 2013, we decided to outfit our waterfront location with the kinds of sensors and scientific instruments commonly used on research ships and at environmental field stations. We figured that in order to understand the natural environment of San Francisco Bay, from the water to the upper atmosphere, we needed to approach the challenge the way scientists do, with observation and data collection. We named this modest project the Wired Pier, referring to the collection of instruments, data networks, and displays throughout our campus, from the roof to the water and from backroom computer servers to the Wired Pier website and the public exhibits in the Fisher Bay Observatory.
Now that we have three years of data about Bay water, weather, and atmospheric conditions under our belts, we’ve learned a lot about the daily and seasonal patterns of the Bay and, working with science partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and state universities, we are just starting to tease out how our local environment may be changing over time. But this is a job too big for just the Exploratorium and our research collaborators; we also wanted to give students, teachers, and the public a crack at exploring environmental data and making their own discoveries.
To do that, we’ve reinvented the way that environmental data is accessed and graphed by developing a web app. Instead of a complicated set of pull down menus and myriad choices typical of many data portals, the Data Explorer app uses many of the features we’ve gotten used to with our phones and tablets to access and interact with Wired Pier datasets. With the Data Explorer, you can select data sets and instantly graph and manipulate them with click, drag, pinch, and zoom actions. These intuitive tools make it much easier to compare datasets and start to understand the relationship between say tidal currents and Bay salinity or wind direction and air temperature.
There are dozens of different datasets and thousands of combinations to explore, so have fun! If you’d like a quick intro on how to use the Data Explorer, check out our video tutorial.