Introducing BLUE Scholar: Sam Lumley


Hello, I’m Sam. I’m a Master’s student in the Department of Geography and I work on communicating climate change through interactive visualisation. In my thesis work I’m looking into what makes interactive visualisation an effective platform for communicating climate change. My fellowship at b21 had allowed me to get my hands dirty and have a go at making a tool of my own

At B21 my initial proposal was to build a browser-based game that lets people run a simple climate-population model. I’m hoping that visualising and playing around with a model can help in understanding how human activity is affecting the Earth’s climate.

The idea guiding the project was that fiddling is a form of learning. Playing around with model parameters, physical relationships, or population responses can give insight into what drives environmental change, and how models capture some (but never all) of the actual complexity. That idea remains relevant. Fiddling about a model to learn a system is key.

The project has shifted to an agent-based model in an environment. If that advances enough, then the environment, at a very simplified level, could be incorporated. Pick one or two meaningful features.

My initial proposal asked: are climate or earth-systems models fun?

I’m not so sure. Yes, there’s something mesmerising about the swirling non-linear patterns that come out of high order global climate models (e.g. A Year in the Life of Earth's CO2). But for the simpler models most often used in teaching, things can be a bit less engaging. There’s not much fun in seeing temperature rise when CO2 rises. Once you’ve tried it once, what’s inviting you to keep playing around?

Initial Design (now discarded)

Initial Design (now discarded)

That said, I don’t think it’s underlying complexity alone making climate visualisation interesting. Even simple relationships can give rise to complex behaviours. For instance, John Conway's Game of Life uses four rules to decide whether a particular cell lives or dies in each generation, creating an evolving automated population of cells.

Now, the scope of the project has become more constrained.

My Idea

So my initial idea was to try and liven things up by introducing a small population living inside a climate model. It would use a similar generation-based game design to the Game of Life, where simple rules tell each individual whether to move, consume resources, multiply, or perish. All this activity would be superimposed on top of an underlying earth system model (including climate), which reacts dynamically to activity.

P5 Animation Test

P5 Animation Test

Currently, the main component of the interface will be a grid-based map, consisting of a relatively small number of simplified-environment cells', which regenerate turn by turn. Basic rules will simulate the transfer of energy across grid cells (like those above and below) to determine climate conditions.

The objective is to guide the whole system into an equilibrium by managing a dynamic population and the environment on which it depends. Players will have control over how the population organises over time, where it develops and how it consumes resources, and will have to manage trade-offs between happiness, productivity and long-term survival to keep things afloat.

Research Questions


- What makes something fun? Compelling? Engaging? Meaningful?

- What role should the user play (e.g. controlling agents’ behaviour, using limited model data)?

- Should there be an end goal (e.g. preserve the population for the most time)?


- Which elements of earth-system and population models are most important to convey?

- How realistic do the models need to be?


- Is it best to use a web gaming engine (like melonjs) or Javascript library (like matter.js, p5.js)?

- How to deal with all those relationships and data?


If you have any ideas or insights to help me move this project along I’d be very grateful to hear from you—let’s chat!

The Github page:

David Jhave Johnston