Connor Bleisch giving a presentation with visuals of his work.
This past December, Connor Bleisch presented his data visualization with NASA and AGU at the 2023 AGU Annual Meeting in San Francisco for 25,000 attendees from over 100 different countries.
Courtesy NASA / AGU

Connor Bleisch, a graduate research assistant in the College of Science at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), has won the 2023 American Geophysical Union (AGU) Michael H. Freilich Data Visualization Competition grand prize. The honoree is being recognized for a data visualization project that places the user in the middle of a first-hand recreation of a raging wildfire in the Sequoia National Park in 2021.

“This award will serve as a significant recognition of the visualization research conducted by our graduate students here at UAH,” says Dr. Haeyong Chung, an associate professor at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, who mentors Bleisch, along with Dr. Manil Maskey at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

“The project is a narrative data visualization that recreates the events of a major wildfire called the KNP Complex Fire, which occurred from September to December in 2021,” Bleisch explains. “NASA Earthdata is materialized as objects and effects in a 3D virtual world that the user can explore. Every element is based on real-world datasets collected from satellites and sensors at the time of the wildfire. The fire starts, spreads and dies according to the actual recorded locations and intensities of the fire.”

NASA Earthdata is a site that enables the user to search through more than 90 petabytes of Earth-observation data in NASA’s archive. The application is designed to ease the technical burden on users by making it simple to discover and interact with Earth-observation data created or distributed by NASA.

Through Bleisch’s project, users are able to control a camera and move around in this digital world as if they were in the middle of the Sequoia wildfire as it happened. Particles float in the air according to recorded concentrations of byproducts, gasses and particulate matter created by the fire throughout its lifetime. “The wind blows the trees and smoke plumes individually based on time and space,” Bleisch says. “The main focus of the project is to provide a new avenue for average people to experience NASA Earthdata in a less daunting way compared to a typical graph, chart or other 2D visualization that might require more scientific experience to fully understand.”

Bleisch has been working on the project for the NASA Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team as part of his position as a graduate research assistant. “To develop this data visualization, I used a program called Unity which is typically an engine for creating video games,” the researcher says. “This project combines my desire to create video games with my love of math and science. I think there has been a need for novel ways to present data, especially in ways that the average person would understand and enjoy.”

AGU is the world's largest organization for Earth, atmospheric, ocean, hydrologic, space and planetary scientists. The prize funds professional development activities like conference travel or travel to a NASA facility. This past December, Bleisch presented his data visualization with NASA and AGU at the 2023 AGU Annual Meeting in San Francisco for 25,000 attendees from over 100 different countries.


Kristina Hendrix

Elizabeth Gibisch