At Echo, Visualizing Lake Champlain's Health With '1,300 Cubic Feet Of Light'

Jan 13, 2016

As public officials and local communities prepare to roll out the state's new water quality policies, a group of programmers and educators is working to grow public interest and understanding of what data from the lake can tell us.

They're using a new kind of display for the data – one designed to mix art, science and math.

"It makes data accessible and available to the entire community," says Justin Cutroni, an "analytics evangelist" for Google who helped work on the display, called Lake Brite.

"I mean, look at this thing," he said, gesturing over a railing at Lake Brite. "It's 24 feet wide, it's nine feet tall. It's six feet deep. That's 1,300 cubic feet of light."

Imagine a 9-foot string hanging from the ceiling, and little spheres the size of golf balls at precise intervals every few inches. Now, instead of one string like that, imagine hundreds of them are hanging from the ceiling in rows, spaced in a way that creates a three-dimensional array.

Each sphere is a uniform distance from the spheres above and below it and from the other four spheres surrounding it.

Each one of those spheres is a light.

"There are 7,500 LEDs in this exhibit. Each one is individually programmable and can be its own color and it's own brightness." - Justin Cutrone, Google

"There are 7,500 LEDs in this exhibit," Cutrone says. "Each one is individually programmable and can be its own color and it's own brightness."

When it was lit up for the first time, project manager Rachel Hooper introduced some of Lake Brite's capabilities.

Project manager Rachel Hooper says the goal of Lake Brite was not just to display data. She said the project group approached with bigger goals.

"What could we do to bring data to a broader audience," she said, "and more importantly, what can we do to start playing with data in our community? How do we make it relatable? And how do we spark curiosity around lake health and give people a way to find out more and possibly do more to make a healthier lake?"

All lit up, Lake Brite looks as much like a decoration as it does a science project. Hooper narrates one of Lake Brites demonstration data visualizations like this:

"What you're looking at is a storm that was about eight hours long. We're seeing it in about 20 seconds. It moves here, which is the south end of Lake Champlain, through to the north. The west is by the window, the east is over here."

As she explains it, pockets of orbs light up and move through the display. It looks like lightning strikes illuminating the storm clouds as they come closer over the lake, but the whole thing played out in Lake Brite.

The exhibit could also show things like a 3D rendering of how deep the lake is in different areas, or water temperatures or just about any other data set that someone's creative enough to imagine in three dimensions.

"I'd love to see this platform being opened up to the entire community and see what other kinds of data we can bring," Hooper says.

The project team is working on making it easier to put data sets into Lake Brite for display.

Hooper and Cutroni say they want to come up with an augmented reality system for Lake Brite as well, so visitors could point their smart phone camera at it and get a guide to the data on display – kind of like Hooper's narration.

The project team doesn't yet have a full inventory of the data sets that'll be displayed with Lake Brite. But they made sure that whatever the new platform shows, it'll be enlightening.