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J.D. Dougherty (right) hosted a week of brainstorming sessions for Earth Dashboard, a project originated by Medard Gabel (left).
J.D. Dougherty (right) hosted a week of brainstorming sessions for Earth Dashboard, a project originated by Medard Gabel (left).

Designing a Dashboard for "Spaceship Earth"


Imagine walking into the lobby of the United Nations Building in Manhattan and taking part in an interactive, computer-generated exhibit that tells you just how much carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere in Asia at exactly that moment. Or how many people are living below the poverty level in South America. Or the current infant mortality rate in Africa.

This is the idea for the “Earth Dashboard,” a set of gauges and “worldometers”—resembling speedometers on a typical car’s dashboard—that provide real-time economic, social, and environmental information on the state of the planet. A group of 21 people, including computer scientists, graphic artists, museum exhibit designers, software developers, and Haverford professors, staff members and students, spent the week of July 13-17 in Stokes Hall generating ideas for this dashboard’s prototype.

“We want to put information in a format that will allow someone in the lobby of the U.N. to quickly get a sense of what’s going on, and want to learn more,” says John “J.D.” Dougherty, assistant professor of computer science, who hosted the week-long brainstorming sessions with help from the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship (CPGC) Faculty Support Fund.

The Earth Dashboard is the brainchild of Medard Gabel, CEO of BigPicture SmallWorld, a research and education company based in Media, Pa. Gabel came up with the idea of a dashboard for what he calls “Spaceship Earth.”  “We live in a closed system; if you punch a hole in the starboard side, the ship goes down,” he says. “The health and well-being of everyone on the planet is interrelated.”

Dougherty met Gabel—a friend of CPGC Director Parker Snowe ’79—back in January, and admired his ambition for the project. “It dovetails with my goals for the department of computer science: to leverage the mission of the College and apply it to computer technology,” he says.

The goal of the brainstorming and design sessions was, says Gabel, to “focus people’s attention on critical issues and integrate everyone’s ideas.” During the week, participants proposed windshields displaying the future, clocks following the Earth’s orbit, and an “Earth Game” where players will use a steering wheel to divert the planet from disaster. By the end of the week, the group had devised a prototype that will be incorporated into a proposal for partners and funders.

Gabel wants the Earth Dashboard to “inform, inspire and empower” visitors. “In a car, the dashboard keeps you aware of when the fuel runs out or the engine overheats. The Earth’s path is more complicated.” The Dashboard will be installed in the U.N. Building sometime in the next couple of years, after renovations to the building’s lobby have been completed. Gabel plans to keep Haverford faculty and students involved in the project as it evolves.

“The tool will provide information and motivation for people interested in change,” says Dougherty. “They can take advantage of the information available to them; it will spark conversations and discussions, and get people motivated to make the changes that are needed.” He is grateful to the CPGC for making Haverford’s participation in the brainstorming possible. “They not only provided funding, but also feedback and ideas to make everything run as effectively as possible.”

Ian Burnette ’12, who is considering a major in computer science, proposed the orbital clock: “I think it's interesting that our basis for the passage of time is so closely tied to the physical position of the earth around the sun.” He enjoyed observing and participating in the brainstorming and development process, as well as, he says, “hanging out with professional software developers.”

Religion major Ruben Alexis ’10 signed up to take part in Earth Dashboard after reading a description on Haverford’s website.  “I really like the project, because it has a lot of potential,” he says. Among the suggestions he contributed for the prototype was “twinning,” a device matching two people of the same age who are from different countries, so they can compare and contrast their locales.

“The brainstorming sessions were beneficial, because they helped define what the Earth Dashboard is,” he says.

-Brenna McBride



Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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