May 06, 2022

ClimateCheck Team Interview - Dr Annie Preston PhD

Flood | by Wendy Erickson | 7 Minutes

Dr. Annie Preston PhD Computer Science, UC Davis

Here is a chance to get to know our wonderful data visualization and risk communication expert at ClimateCheck, Dr. Annie Preston. Her work as a data scientist focuses on atmospheric science, air pollution, and wildfire management. Throughout her discussion here, she provides insight on the process of making abstract climate risks a tangible and visual reality. She covers her background in visualizing information, how she creates vivid and edifying climate data designs, her thoughts on our global approach to climate change, and more.

Annie at ClimateCheck

What is your background? What education and experience are you drawing on most for your work at ClimateCheck?

  • I have a background in physics and astronomy. I love how existential astronomy is, trying to understand the nature of the universe based on these faraway light sources. In practice, I learned that I enjoy the problem solving of programming and working with big datasets, and I pivoted to studying computer science with a focus on data visualization. It's a really hands-on field where you can work with lots of different scientists and practitioners. As I got older, I had more clarity about the fundamental importance of climate change, and I moved from visualizing astronomical models to working with environmental data.

What projects do you work on at ClimateCheck? How have you seen those topics have an impact?

  • I work on everything to do with communicating risk. This includes working on the modeling and metrics, and figuring out how to transparently use metrics to communicate something tangible about the physical impacts to people. We need to communicate information in many different formats, from a quick summary on the website, to a bulk data file, to a longer visual report, and I need to make sure that all the end users can easily interpret what they're looking at. It's been fascinating for me to learn so much about the physical risk landscape across the U.S. and how to talk about it, and in my personal life, I can talk so much more tangibly about what is happening. Hopefully, the information people see on ClimateCheck will help them do the same.

Insights of Climate Risk Data Science

What are the biggest challenges communicating climate risk?

  • I often see a very understandable desire to convince yourself that you, personally, aren't at a significant risk, and your life won't change too much. This is related to the issue of relative vs. absolute risk: it's getting hotter everywhere, and it's hard to communicate to people at the lower end of that spectrum that they are still at risk, and that they are affected by risks that they may not physically experience in their specific location. Communicating uncertainty on top of that is a big challenge.

What is your process like for creating understandable insights from ClimateCheck data?

  • I usually start with sketching — I'm a visual artist on the side, and creating ideas this way helps me generate lots of possibilities for a design. It's important to try out different visual encodings, use intuitive color schemes, and be willing to simplify and not use all dimensions of a dataset. I try to get feedback on my first draft from someone who's not familiar with the data–are they getting the intended message? The best outcome is if they're interested enough to keep looking at the visualization and finding out more about the data from it.

What are the most commonly misunderstood concepts in the field of climate risk and uncertainty?

  • I think people have strong preconceived notions about which physical hazards they are and are not at risk from, based on their lived experience. But places that have never flooded before will flood, places that have never burned will burn, and there will be deadly heat waves in cooler places. I hope that communicating our data will help people understand these risks but also put them in an appropriate scale and context, so people feel empowered and informed instead of fearful.

The Future of Climate Change

What do you think is an aspect of climate change where progress can be made?

  • In the U.S., I think that getting people out of cars as much as possible is such an attainable way to reduce emissions. Where I live, I've been encouraged to see (and participate in) growing momentum around improving cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure and building more housing near trains and buses. It's also just so much more pleasant to bike around a city than to drive for short trips, and I think that idea is catching on, especially with the popularity of e-bikes. Outside of a car, you see your neighbors and your environment so much more clearly.

Are you optimistic about our climate future?

  • I don't like to predict; there are so many forces here, especially the fossil fuel companies, who have been intentionally misinforming us for decades. For my personal well-being, I try to live with acceptance that there is a fundamental uncertainty about everything. For me, the most hopeful things to do are to talk to people around me about climate change—this can be really hard!—, to take action in local politics like advocating for more car-free infrastructure, and to live as closely as I can to the values I aspire to.

What do you see as the most interesting or impactful climate change topic that isn’t commonly discussed?

  • To me, the most impactful topic, in terms of lives lost, is that even if all the nations of the world meet the most optimistic emissions targets, there are going to be entire countries and regions that are unlivable, either because of sea level rise or because of deadly heat. Every fraction of a degree of warming counts, and I think those of us in wealthier nations can lose sight of this reality when we're talking abstractly about emissions scenarios and putting everything in terms of economics, and claiming that there are tradeoffs to decarbonization. In general, those who contribute the most to climate change suffer the least, and the people on our planet responsible for the smallest amounts of emissions suffer the greatest consequences.

What’s your favorite source of climate change news?

If you could say something to every person in the world, what would you say to them about climate change?

  • If you are a relatively wealthy person on the planet, which I and many Americans are, your actions do make a difference: your choices about consumption—having stuff shipped to you, driving, flying—matter and set an example for those around you. Fossil fuel companies are interested in what's called "predatory delay," which is keeping things the same for as long as possible, and to do this, they spread the idea that we need their product to live a worthwhile life. But every amount of emissions that we avoid matters and makes things better than they would be otherwise. There's a lot of power in people imagining a better way of life that isn't dependent on fossil fuels. And it's more fun than just becoming hopeless.

A Bit More About Annie!

What do you do when you’re not working for such an amazing company?

  • Painting, bouldering, playing instruments, hiking and birdwatching outdoors, and sometimes picking up litter around my neighborhood. I also love puzzles (jigsaw and pencil/paper).

Is there anything more that you would like to add that hasn't been asked yet?

  • I see rethinking our relationship with the earth, and therefore our entire way of life, as something to be excited and hopeful about. Constantly growing consumption is only one of many possible modes we can have as a species, and I think other possibilities are much more appealing.