The Last Element | Live Smart

Seattle, WA

Awards & Nominations

The Last Element has received the following awards and nominations. Way to go!

Global Nominee

The Challenge | Live Smart

Evaluate environmental, social, and economic data to design tools and plan blueprints for smart and connected rural and urban settlements.

The Last Element

Humans have some cerebral, visceral, and kisceral grasp for Earth, Water, and Fire. The missing Element … Air. Essential and all but invisible, seems vast but a very thin layer, moves randomly, almost uncontrollable. We need new tools and visualizations.

The Last Element

The Last Element


This project originated from discussions on the NCDD ( National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation ) listserve, where professional facilitators lamented the seeming inability of people to engage meaningfully in group discussions about global climate change, and my own personal engagement with individuals. A large portion of the population is reluctant to incorporate the growing mass of scientific information on that topic, and that seemed odd because our cultural paradigm has shifted on other sorts of issues like race, gender, and even the greater part of the environment – gardening organic foods, bottled water, and solar panels sprouting on houses attest to that. This led me to consider, ‘Why those, and not the climate?’

It occurred to me, that those were signs of people observing, understanding, controlling, and gaining meaning of these environmental aspects in their own personal sphere. Robert Stack in Homo Geographicus: A Framework for Action, Awareness, and Moral Concern interrogates “how nature, culture, self, and such geographical factors as space, place, home, and world fit together.” What was needed going forward was not more reams of scientific evidence, but a way forward to personalize climate at the individual scale – so I abandoned modern science and approached it as ancient alchemy instead, choosing the simple conceptual metaphors of the classic Greek elements.

All humans have some Cerebral (intellectual), Visceral (physical), and Kisceral (intuitive) grasp for Earth, Water, and Fire via our daily embodied experiences. For Earth, we crawl on it as babies, make sand castles as children, climb mountains as student, play blocks and build cities as adults. For Water, we bath in it as infants, pour it as a kid, flush, sprinkle it on our gardens, make swimming pools in our yards as adults, divert it, and travel on it. In regards to Fire, we bask in the sun while young, make our first campfire as a teen, throw shadows, run from forest fires, and use it to light our night. All of these are a continuous bodily experience from youth to old age, gradually increasing in scale and control – so we ‘Get It’, on all sorts of levels.

But, not so with Air - our modern experiences with air, the weather, and the even further horizon of climate are mostly being that of being at the mercy of it. It is mostly transparent, for the most part invisible to us. It seems to move more or less randomly and certainly unpredictably. The only control we seem to have is to completely exclude it, by building the bubbles our buildings provide us – aside from house fans and extreme technology like aircraft wings. We don’t know where it comes from or where it goes away from our immediate personal vicinity. Misconceptions about the larger scale abound, the air looks infinite to us, I mean we can see to the nearest star, right? But it is as thin as Saranwrap on a beachball. Thus it is ‘Out of sight, out of mind’, except for the occasional adverse olfactory event ( AOE, I just had to introduce a three letter acronym, this is a NASA project ). We simply don’t know Air like our other elements, Earth, Water, and Fire.

The Proposal

NASA, NOAA, NWS, and other agencies and their European counterparts have prodigious data stores of historical weather data ( ... and some look ahead, too ), sitting in back of immense computation fire power, and we now have ubiquitous connected digital visualization endpoints. We can use that in some focused ways to pull on the heartstrings and purse strings to make the element of Air significant and meaningful to the ordinary person. The end result most people see of all this infrastructure is some awkward symbols of a cloud with steaks coming out overlapping a sun with a snowflake (I live in the Pacific Northwest ... ) on the TV and maybe a chart of numbers for the next few days – not much context in time or space aside from the occasional comment on the highest ever recorded on that day.

The Forecast, Backcast and Recast

The weather data lake ( Umm ... ‘ocean’? ) needs more accessibility. While everyone seems to concentrate on developing sexy mobile apps (the endpoints), a lot more could be done post-processing the raw data into secondary and third tier data products and APIs (the pipeline). Similar to SatSAR and lidar data, which becomes 'first-return' and 'bare-earth' datasets, then processed to a shaded relief map, and then that is draped with aerial photography and sent to a watershed model – weather data needs to undergo the same sort of transformations, essentially we need to 'Recast' the data into generic useful intermediate forms.

The Airscape

The Nullschool ( ) browser visualization of Earth’s wind and currents is an excellent example – someone should be able to have this full view on their widescreen TV zoomed in on their neck of the woods. Most people are transfixed and mesmerized by this, most importantly, over time they see the patterns beyond their immediate horizon. How about some Lego kits of classic weather patterns like hurricanes or the Hadley Cell system? Or commission a transparent 3D helical sculpture of the prevailing seasonal conditions for a residence as a table centerpiece or mantle item?

WindFields and Windroses

The delivery and symbology of weather maps needs to be revisited – the standard technical presentation of wind flags was originally intended for very sparse networks of individual stations, to most people they look like Chinese characters – we need something that indicates continuity and allows people to see patterns, the actual windfield in there neighborhoods, and for the windrose. Most of these conventions date from the turn of the previous century and were meant for hand drawing on paper.

The AirStory

In The Death of Environmentalism, Van Jones,the co-founder of the California Apollo Project is quoted as saying “The first wave of environmentalism was framed around conservation and the second around regulation. We believe the third wave will be framed around investment.”

As an example, Earth, Water, and Fire figure prominently in the value of a residence, the primary long term investment most Americans make. If a house has view because it is on a pile of Earth, it is worth more, also if it fronts the Water, and it has to have Fire of utilities.Similarly, I believe that Air can begin to take part in out economic values.

For instance, a real estate listing would reference an ‘Airstory’, the weather conditions that existed hour by hour over years, and where the winds are coming from and where they go – especially adverse events like snow on an extremely steep driveway. Air sources at various time scales could also be indicated at neighborhood, municipal, county, region, and global scales. New logistic services like robot and drone delivery would also use this data, also urban agriculture, and obviously travel / recreation. This to some degree, could be derived and interpolated from the existing data lake, and would be enhanced going forward by the next suggestion.

The WhetherBot

We all need decision support - whether or not to do something. As any pilot can tell you, taking off and flying is easy – it is landing that is the problem. Precise weather information at the point of residential delivery is a tremendous value, especially for robotic logistics. When these points are aggregated, we have an opportunity to evaluate very local conditions in emergency situations, predicting sewer overflows, road conditions for first-responders, and even backyard gardens. Also, overtime, this ‘nano-scale’ weather data would be tremendously useful for informing and calibrating micro-scale, meso-scale, and meta-scale atmospheric models.

Most of the typical instruments now existing completely solid state form with no moving parts, and the networks exist to harvest the data. When this is data stream is encrypted at point of measurement and transmitted securely to a data vault in the cloud, it becomes a valuable continuous record of conditions at the property – and so would affect insurance rates, valuations, and liability. It would greatly assist full disclosure during property sales and accident underwriting. Similar to fire alarms and sprinklers, insurance companies may offer a substantial rate discount and power utilities purchase subsidies because it would inform potential efficiencies in the grid. WhetherBot would also inform many small decision about mundane household events, from what clothing to wear to when the relatives come to visit.

The Last Element

The components of the proposal are completely possible with current (or very near term) components and technology. All of the provide a way to personalize the climate system at all scales, from their residence, where they work and play, all the way out to the global climate – that ‘Yes, our air in Seattle has dust from a drought in China’. Rather than being at the mercy of climate, they give a person multiple ways to observe patterns over time, make the links between them, and make decisions based on that information. Each center provides a means for artist, graphic designers, consumer product designers, and others who specialize in the human interfaces of sight, touch, and sound a way to deliver the cold petabytes of the datalake. Rather than simple delivery endpoints, they all enable a multitude of other product and service innovations. Air then has aesthetic and economic value, and will be protected like our land lakes and rivers.

Air then joins Earth, Air and Fire for us to preserve, and to serve us.

Michael J. Patrick, Geographer


SpaceApps is a NASA incubator innovation program.