Objects of the Forest

Exploring the Amazon Rainforest through Information Visualizations

Tomi Kauppinen is a docent of Media Technology, Department of Computer Science, and project leader of Aalto Online Learning at Aalto University in Finland. His passion is to create, study and teach information visualization, spatial thinking, cognitive systems/artificial intelligence and blended learning design.


For all of our creativity, designs, and life itself to work we have very basic needs— even just breathing, as simple as it may sound. Forests, including the Amazon rainforest, are responsible for producing a substantial part of all the oxygen on Earth, the oxygen we all breath. The biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest is far beyond our imagination, and also beyond our current observational capabilities. What can be observed are the rapidly increasing amount of forest fires and the deforestation of yet new regions at the Amazon. Satellites produce data about the environmental change, and together with other data about social and economic change, can provide information about not just what is going on, but also why and how. This is where explorative information visualization and linked data methods play prominent roles in both integrating data, and making it comprehensible and actionable for us humans. The hypothesis generation power of information visualization can lead us to tackle important open research questions. Digital learning with strong fact-based storytelling allows us to take the needed steps for understanding the grand challenges and for creating designs that are able to cope with those challenges. In this article I provide a summary of our efforts in all of these dimensions, as a friend of Brazil and many Brazilians, and as a big fan of the amazing Amazon.


As an European and a Finnish person I look at Brazil and its Amazon as beautiful, diverse and thought-provoking sources of inspiration and creativity. The Amazon rainforest is a unique region, from its biodiversity to its ability to generate a remarkable portion of all of the oxygen we breath. Deforestation, often started by illegal forest fires, introduces a great risk for the existence of the Amazon rainforest. It is important to observe where fires and deforestation happen over time to both act immediately and to plan for the long term how to save the rainforest. Visualization can help in comprehending all of that, and this depends on data. All data are essentially observations produced by technical sensors, by humans, or increasingly by artificial intelligence. Grand challenges we face—most timely in the form of climate change and the current pandemic as of 2020—create new open research questions [1].

Integration of data from different sources—as linked data including spatial references [2]—and visualising, analysing and communicating what is going on can help us to make better decisions, and to learn what is best for us humans and for nature. Solutions are not as straightforward as one might wish. The concept of the Triangle of Sustainability [3] helps to capture this complexity by enabling ecological, economical and social viewpoints to be taken into account. This is needed not just for understanding what has happened, but also for making informed policies and decisions.

For this we named one of our information visualization approaches after the concept of the Triangle of Sustainanibility, and used it as the core of the whole design process from the start to final product [4]. It consists of three screens, organised as a triangle, in each of which a visitor can visually compare economic, ecological and social data dimensions about the Amazon region (for the description of the data see [5]). These options range, for instance, from comparing deforestation rates against GDP in the area, or with the size of the population. An ideal presentation would include both the original data tables (for details, and with verified origins) and visualizations (for understanding narratives and stories the data has to tell) [6].

I call these "machineries hypothesis generation systems" in that they should support our society, and direct the work of scientists and politicians, to help create hypotheses about correlations between different phenomena—and thus to suggest what kind of research should take place to confirm or falsify those hypotheses. For the general public, information visualization can also act as a way to to communicate scientifically verified facts. For that purpose, fact-based storytelling and narratives are essential. People connect to stories, and by placing them over time and in some place, and including twists and characters, one can identify themselves with it and all help to create the story. For instance, we have created an approach to visualize the change in the Amazon Rainforest through animations [7] by using storytelling methods.


We all live on this spinning globe together. Our actions, and in fact all events, are related, and can potentially alter each other. This is often called the butterfly effect after the seminal work by scientist Edward Lorenz, and earlier phrasings by author Ray Bradbury and philosopher Johann Fichte. Tobler’s first law in geography [8]—"everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things"—highlights the importance of spatial proximity for creating important relations. However, in our current global system, people, goods and agricultural products move rather freely across long distances. Modeling complex processes by ontologies—such as land use[9]—based on research can help us see a sharper picture of the consequences of our actions.

The question about why large parts of the Amazon Rainfoest are being deforested can find answers in high export volumes of agricultural products to other regions (like China, Europe or USA), in addition to the obvious cause of the tree industry. Visualized narratives—storytelling based on verified data of economical, ecological and social dimensions—should thus help people understand their role in the gobal system. Sustainability does not happen by accident, it happens via wider understanding of the global relations, and sensemaking of data for supporting better informed decisions. The grand challenges of our globe call for truly novel and radical ideas for designing sustainable products and services.


Bringing data, ideas and people from very different fields together should also inspire creativity at the crossroads. Creating approaches which support learning is no exception. For this, in Aalto Online Learning at Aalto University we have created transdisciplinary theme groups (ranging from virtual and augmented reality to online textbooks, or from video production to educational games) crosscutting all of our six schools [10]. As of 2020, remote teaching and online learning are the only widely available options to continue education while reducing the harms of the pandemic. At Aalto Online Learning, we have also helped the Brazil-Finland Cultural Center (CCBF) to create and produce online videos for their recently launched courses on Portuguese. Languages and cultures go hand in hand—it's for a good reason that communication and collaboration are included, together with creativity and critical thinking, in the "four Cs" of the skills needed for the future.  

I argue that the Amazon Rainforest deserves our best efforts, critical thinking of what is going on, transdisciplinary design and research collaboration, and creativity that only together we can achieve in a team spirit. Grand challenges exist, for sure, but now is when we really must act. Information visualization can detail us roadmaps of what has happened, and show both trends and scenarios of the future. Space, time and theme serve as integrators of data for storytelling. (Listen some of my thoughts on this via https://soundcloud.com/user-705936595/sets/tomi-on-information- visualisation-the-roles-of-stories-time-space-and-theme).


Visual narratives can be effective and influential, and for obvious reasons should introduce transparency about their data sources. Visualizations can inspire and encourage curiosity for mode in-depth research about a topic. Visualizations can thus provide cues—generate hypotheses—about where events are concentrated, and which phenomena correlate with each other. Just think of the complexity of the Amazon Rainforest, and how important it is to integrate different viewpoints for any informed decisions. Visualizations can reveal root causes for events (think of the deforestation vs. export of agricultural products). Visualizations provide easier and quicker ways to tell stories of what is going on, or at least what is potentially going on.    

For creativity, for design, for meaningful work, for life—we need inspiration, we need oxygen, and we need collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. For me personally, the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil, and Brazilians provide these. For the sustainable future to happen we truly need to work together, better understand through visual storytelling the Earth we live on, and make informed decisions and creative designs.


  1. Garijo, D.; Villanueva-Rosales, N.; Kauppinen, T. Editorial: Special issue on Semantic eScience: Methods, tools and applications. Semantic Web 2020, 11, 731–733.
  2. Kuhn, W.; Kauppinen, T.; Janowicz, K. Linked Data – A Paradigm Shift for Geographic Information Science. Proceedings of The Eighth International Conference on Geographic Information Science (GIScience2014); , 2014.
  3. Serageldin, I., Promoting sustainable development – toward a new paradigm. In Valuing the environment: Proceedings of the First Annual International Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development; Number 13520, The World Bank, 1994.
  4. Bartoschek, T.; Paper, G.; Kray, C.; Jones, J.; Kauppinen, T. Gestural Interaction with Spatiotemporal Linked Open Data. OSGEO Journal 2013.
  5. Kauppinen, T.; de Espindola, G.M.; Jones, J.; Sanchez, A.; Gräler, B.; Bartoschek, T. Linked Brazilian Amazon Rainforest Data. Semantic Web Journal 2014, 5.
  6. Degbelo, A.; Wissing, J.; Kauppinen, T. A Comparison of Geovisualizations and Data Tables for Transparency Enablement in the Open Government Data Landscape. International Journal of Electronic Government Research (IJEGR) 2018, 14, issue 4, 39–64.
  7. Mazumdar, S.; Kauppinen, T. Visualizing and Animating Large-scale Spatiotemporal Data with ELBAR Explorer. Proceedings of the ISWC 2014 Posters and Demonstrations Track, a track within the 13th International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC 2014); , 2014.
  8. Tobler, W.R. A Computer Movie Simulating Urban Growth in the Detroit Region. Economic Geography 1970, 46, 234–240. doi:10.2307/143141.
  9. Kauppinen, T.; de Espindola, G.M. Ontology-Based Modeling of Land Change Trajectories in the Brazilian Amazon. Geoinformatik 2011—GeoChange; , 2011.
  10. Kauppinen, T.; Guseva, Y.; Gottshalk, S. Designing Digital Higher Education: Case Aalto Online Learning. Winner of the EUNIS Dørup E-learning Award 2020. European University Information Systems (EUNIS), 2020.

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