I don’t watch a lot of TV news these days, largely because I often find the news a little quicker online. Just like watching the news on TV, though, it can sometimes be tough when following news to judge the scale of events, especially those of a tragic nature. I find that the often obvious TV film script is usually more concerned on the fate of individuals, because there’s no easy way to convey a disaster of any scale in simple TV terms.
The Web isn’t constrained by the terms of television, however. I’ve recently become aware of a fascinating project being undertaken by the BBC, called Dimensions. Dimensions is, in its own words, an experiment in “in trying to find new ways to communicate history.”. Specifically, what Dimensions does is use global map data — if you can name it you can find it — and then superimpose the effects of a given historical event over that area, to give the reader a genuine sense of the scale of an event.
There’s some fun stuff in there — like being able to see how long the Space Shuttle runway would be if it was located in the middle of Melbourne (http://howbigreally.com/dimension/space/shuttle_runway#Melbourne) or what would happen if you dropped St Peter’s Basilica in the middle of Canberra (http://howbigreally.com/dimension/festivals_and_specticles/pope_st_paul#canberra).
What really grabbed my attention were the disaster superimpositions. It’s all too easy to forget about a crisis when it’s a thirty second news spot and the camera only focuses on a couple of people. But drop it into your neighbourhood, and you get a proper sense of the scale, and almost inevitably start thinking about the consequences. The recent floods in Pakistan might seem quite far away, but if you dropped them, on say, Adelaide (http://howbigreally.com/dimension/environmental_disasters/pakistan_floods#adelaide), the scope of the disaster shifts from distant to breathtakingly close.
Or take the Pacific Garbage Patch. This was one I didn’t know anything about, and the short version is this; there’s two large swirling patches of garbage floating either side of Hawaii, held in place by ocean currents. When you think of Hawaii, you probably think of dusky island maidens and delicately lit beaches, rather than fetid stinking pools of swirling plastic and muck. But hey, it’s only a little garbage in a big ocean, right?
Well, not so small. If you superimpose it over, say, Alice Springs (http://howbigreally.com/dimension/environmental_disasters/great_pacific_garbage_patch#Alice_Springs) you’ll get a better idea of the scope of the problem — especially as that’s only half of it!