USGS - California Drought Data Visualization - Using R-ScriptsIf you’re looking for a real-life example of successful big data analytics, look no further than today’s headlines. The story is an example of how state and federal agencies worked together, using open software and big data analytics to get through a very difficult time.

Historic Drought Requires Powerful Decision Making Aids

California is experiencing the most severe drought in more than a century. It affects the lives and businesses of the citizens of California and beyond. On January 17th this year, California Governor, Jerry Brown, declared a state of emergency to help state officials manage the drought. In a federal-state partnership, the USGS worked with state water resource managers to provide all Californians with relevant, timely data.

The extraordinary situation led state and federal data analysts to do more than inform the public of water levels. They designed a tool that would stimulate water-related planning, decision making and policy implementation.

Interactive Software Makes the Case for Policy Planning and Implementation

Their tool: the interactive California Drought visualization web site. Part of the federal government’s Open Water Data Initiative, the web site featured graphics that illustrate the drought’s effect on water stored in regional reservoirs.

Mark Sogge, USGS Pacific Regional Director, explained, “Ultimately, the initiative will allow us to better communicate the nation’s water resources status, trends and challenges based on the most recent monitoring information. By integrating a range of federal and state data to communicate the extreme circumstances of the water shortage in California and the southwest, USGS is providing for public use a rich and interactive collection of drought related information.”[1]

Several agencies perform routine observations and through the help of the USGS, this public data is now routed to the drought website developers. The site gathers, processes and transforms high-volume data into visualizations, which provide detailed state-wide coverage of the drought and a timeline of its effect on California water resources.

Open Software + Data Visualization = User-Friendly Access

An important objective of the Open Water Data Initiative was to present valuable water data in a more user-friendly way. When site visitors interact with the data, they can see that as the drought persists, total available water decreases. The site also shows the connection between snowpack and reservoir levels. And current streamflow volume data collected at USGS gauging stations is graphed against historic averages.

From the data analyst’s point of view, the exciting news is that the visualizations were built with the R programming language and other open-source tools. Analysts used R-scripts to create browser-based maps of water data. By simplifying complex data sets and making it more relevant to site visitors, the visualizations enabled faster, more accurate decision making.

“The state and federal data presented are public information and readily available, as is the open-source software that supports the application,” said Emily Read, a USGS website developer. “The application allows the public to explore the drought not only as we’ve presented it, but because the software is open-source, anyone can easily open up the data and expand the story.”[2]

[1] “Data-driven Insights on the California Drought,” USGS Newsroom, 08 December 2014, at

 [2] Ibid.

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