Communicating Critical Visual Information: Hurricane Irene

in Visualizations

communicating critical visual information

When disseminating critical information during times of crisis or danger, it is crucial to use the best visual communication practices possible. The importance of this concept is evident when comparing how two publishers visually represented key weather information regarding Hurricane Irene in the US.

Where’s the potential danger?

During an impending weather crisis, residents need to know what will happen in their immediate locale in order to prepare for potential danger. They may also seek detailed weather information where family and friends reside or how the weather will affect travel plans. The bottom line is that when people choose to view a map, they are seeking greater understanding.

Disappointingly, The Weather Channel maps provide a broad overview of Hurricane Irene—one that is not particularly useful to anyone needing detailed information. To get the outlook for weather in a specific area, users of this website must seek textual information or use a radar map sometime in the future as the hurricane approaches.

In The Weather Channel map below, the big picture view of the hurricane doesn’t provide much more detail than a headline. From this map, we gather that there will be a strong hurricane headed up the Eastern part of the US. The problem is, we already knew that, which is why we came seeking additional information in the first place. The labels indicating the time of the path are helpful, but are difficult to interpret because of the lack of map detail.

Dense Visual Language

In the map above, the red streak of the hurricane will catch the viewer’s attention and indicate the general predicted path of the hurricane. Yet the saturated colors surrounding the red streak detract from the contrast and thus, its impact. Most viewers are aware that the ocean lies East of the continent and that a solid land mass lies to the West. Were the map more subdued, the contrast would be greater. In addition, the underlying state boundary lines—the information readers are seeking—are nearly impossible to discern. Most importantly, there is no functionality for enlarging the map or for zooming in. This should be a requirement for weather maps. Essentially, no detail can be found using The Weather Channel map.

To be fair, there are a selection of weather maps available at The Weather Channel site. For example, see the map of potential threat levels below. Using the key, viewers can determine the potential threat risk if they live in or near one of four cities. Hopefully, no one lives near or around Washington DC, a region that apparently was not deserving of a label. It seems to me that only presenting a big picture view fails to take the users’ needs into consideration.

Nuanced Visual Language

Let’s compare this to the map implemented by the NY Times below. With a quick scan, the viewer can see the predicted path of the hurricane as it relates to specific regions, because the path is transparent and the map provides needed detail. This approach gives us the two layers of information that will most likely answer the question, “What’s happening where I live?”

In addition, by establishing the map in a neutral color, readers can focus on the high-contrast dotted line of the hurricane’s path. Using a color key, the map provides additional information about the category of storm in each region. For those who cannot differentiate between these colors, there is an interactive component to provide information. Also note that the current path of the hurricane is shown with a solid line and the potential path is indicated by a dotted line. Visually literate readers understand that a dashed or dotted line in this context indicates something that does not yet exist.


Another obvious advantage to the NY Times map is its interactivity (see below). A mouse-over on one of the darker lines explains that it is the outside range of the paths the storm could take. Also, moving the mouse over one of the colored circles on the main path provides a more detailed time estimate of when the storm will hit the region. I assume this approach will suffice for people with impairments in discriminating colors.

The map is also equipped with a typical slider for zooming in and out (shown in the first NY Times map above). In the close-up view below, the potential path of the storm in my region of interest becomes apparent. Finally! I got the information I was seeking.


In summary, the aspects of visual language that were effective include: 1) detailed and overview perspectives, 2) high-contrast colors when indicating areas of critical information, 3) information presented in layers, 4) dotted lines to indicate what will potentially occur, 5) attention to accessibility issues and 6) interactivity that provides meaningful information.

I realize that this analysis didn’t take into consideration the budgets of both organizations, which I have no way of knowing. But I suspect that a channel devoted to the weather could do more if they paid attention to the needs and wishes of their users and then provided solutions using the subtleties of visual language.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }