Five years ago today I introduced the NUKEMAP. It feels practically like yesterday — how fast that has flown! I occasionally get college students, not even brand new ones, who tell me that they used it in high school to do reports. That makes me feel… well, like I’ve contributed something, along with feeling old. So that’s not bad. I’ve been behind on posting for awhile now, and am behind on several things at the moment (lots of irons in the fire, plus the debilitating power of a news cycle that seems to change by the minute), but I wanted to put up something about the NUKEMAP.
Some statistics: NUKEMAP has been the host of over 99 million virtual detonations, according to its internal logs. Every detonation, except for ones where people have opted-out of logging, is logged. As I’ve said before, I don’t record enough information for it to be non-anonymizing, but it’s interesting to see things like where people nuke, and what they do with the tool. According to Google Analytics, there have been (as of this checking) over 25 million pageviews, over 20 million of those unique pageviews (e.g., not people coming back and using it multiple times in one session). The usage of the site predictably flares up in certain moments of “virality” (for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima, over 500,000 people used it over two days), and still have sharp moments of heavy traffic every few months. More interesting and important to me is that the site’s “slow days” are now not so slow. When it started, a “slow day” was a few thousand people using it. Today, it’s more like 15,000-20,000 people using it. And, for the most part, people are really using it: the average time on page is 5 minutes, which I think is pretty healthy for a web visualization used by tens of thousands of people a day. That means people are doing more than just clicking and glancing — they’re actually trying things out.
NUKEMAP3D is, for the moment, moribund. Google unceremoniously discontinued support for the Google Earth Web Plugin (the code on their end is just kaput), and no adequate substitute has yet emerged. There are some ways of crudely rendering a 3D planet on the web, but none that support buildings and skylines the way Google Earth did, and that is the whole point of NUKEMAP3D. However, I am developing a temporary substitute which is almost ready to roll out: it will allow you to export any NUKEMAP settings to a KMZ file which you can open in the Google Earths standalone program, and it will support mushroom clouds among other interesting features.
Some reflections: I still remain surprised that NUKEMAP has been as popular as it was. The idea of drawing concentric circles over a map is not a new one, and mine was not even the first web one. Heck, it wasn’t even the first web one for me — in 2005 or so I made a terrible crude version using MapQuest (remember them?) and PHP, and it wouldn’t have been sustainable to use (it literally used PHP to draw circles over static images from MapQuest, so it was very server-intensive by the standards of the day). But I did try to make a version that was easier to use than any of the other ones that were out there, and gave more intuitive, useful information. And when I upgraded NUKEMAP in the summer of 2013, I really did think it was contributing new possibilities: much more flexible detonation options, casualty estimates, a fallout model.
I still give talks about NUKEMAP all the time, whether to large groups (I was on a panel with Noam Chomsky a few years ago, talking about NUKEMAP), or to individual reporters (I did another interview on it just yesterday), or to small groups of students (I Skyped into a high school class a few weeks ago to talk about it, and how it was made, and how these students should not think of it as something beyond their capabilities to put together, something I don’t mind doing if I can make the time for it). I teach a course regularly (“Visualizing Society,” a sort of anarchistic data visualization/science and technology studies course) where I show students how to build NUKEMAP-like applications for other sorts of social phenomena. I still make updates and plans for updates to it: there are several projects in the works, including “refreshing” the interface a bit (don’t worry, it won’t end up looking painfully “trendy”; the blog could probably use a refresh, too), translating it into other languages (which requires more back-end coding than you might expect), and adding new substantive features (I have almost put the final touches on a nuclear burning model and better support for multiple detonations).
I suppose one thing that I’m grateful for is that I’m not yet even slightly bored with any of it — I still find talking about it interesting, I still find it a model of how we might consider science communication to look in our present age. I strongly believe, and will evangelize about to anyone who asks me to (as many have found, probably without realizing what they were getting into), that there is something different about providing a sort of “simulation” to a user and saying, well, you figure out how this works, as opposed to a more didactic mode of education like lecturing. This has strong shades of “active learning,” but I’m not just talking about an approach to the classroom. One nice thing about tools like NUKEMAP is that I can see (through referring links) how people are using them. My favorite example, and this comes up all the time, is when people use it to argue with other people on the Internet. Someone will say, wouldn’t a nuclear bomb do X? And someone says, well, the NUKEMAP says it will be more like Y. And there’s this kind of “calibration” of understanding, as I think of it, that starts to narrow down what these weapons do and don’t do. (And it goes both ways: most people think they are more powerful than they are, but some think they are less powerful.) The NUKEMAP model, as I discuss in its FAQ, isn’t perfect by any means: in some circumstances it probably overestimates the effects (by not taking into account a lot of local variables), in others it probably underestimates them, and the “real world” is much more chaotic than a simple model that can run in your browser can account for, no doubt. But it helps to concretize the experience, the order of magnitude. I think there’s a lot of value in that, when we’re talking about something so removed from everyday human experience (thank goodness) as a nuclear weapon detonation.
And I think this is a model we need to really do more to export to other domains: nukes are one thing in our society that people have trouble really understanding on an intuitive level, but there are plenty more. This is what my “Visualizing Society” class is all about, at its core: finding ways to make interactive data visualizations or simulations that shed light on complex real-world issues. The technical bar for doing these things is lower than most people realize; if I can teach undergraduates (very good and often technically-inclined undergraduates, to be sure, but often ones with no coding experience) the basics of this over the course of a semester, then it can’t be that hard.
My main frustration with NUKEMAP as a communication tool is that the top-down, concentric-circles approach is the view of the military planner. It’s the view of the nuclear targeteer, or as a friend and collaborator put it earlier this week, it’s the view of real estate. It’s not the view of the person on the ground, it’s not the view of the survivor, it’s not the view of the victim. NUKEMAP3D did provide some aspects of that, but the Google Earth plugin, for its communicative benefits, was clunky to use (the 3D interface was not straightforward), required a special installation, and it was never as popular as the regular NUKEMAP. (I was, however, still impressed that some 3 million people used it over its lifetime.) I’m hoping that some future projects I have in mind (no spoilers, sorry) will address these issues more directly and more intensely.
Anyway, more is on the horizon, as ever, and it is just a matter of figuring out how to get it all done. More NUKEMAP, more NUKEMAP-like creations, more work. I’m grateful for NUKEMAP: what started out a literally two-day coding job (one resting, of course, on a decade of coding experience, and even some actual code that I had written a long time ago, to be sure) has turned into something of a guiding idea for a career. It definitely increased the popularity of my blog (whose traffic is admirably high for an academic, despite the fact that I am greatly remiss in updating it lately), and became a selling-point for the kinds of hybrid technical-historical-analytical projects that I never knew I had wanted to spend my life working on (though I did have some inklings). Anyway, much more is coming. When I go silent, don’t think, “what’s happened to him?” Instead, think, “what’s he getting ready for us, next?” There’s a lot in the pipeline.