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BBC's Dimensions: Making the Huge Grokkable in the Familiar

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, August 19 2010

You're sitting at your desk. You're wondering, "If I were sitting in the middle of the Pakistan floods/Burning Man Festival/Silicon Valley, how far would that stretch? To my apartment? To the Target outside of town? To three cities to the east?" Luckily for you, the BBC has just launched an "experimental prototype" it's calling Dimensions:

Dimensions is an experimental prototype for the BBC. We want to bring home the human scale of events and places in history. The D-Day landing beaches measured from London to Norfolk in the UK. How far would the Titanic stretch down your street?

Andy Lintner's If It Were My Home, of course, did something similar in mapping the changing footprint of the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast, but Dimensions is fleshed-out platform, and one that will, say developers, eventually be opened up so that anyone can create, and use, maps comparing some thing to some place, anywhere on the globe.

With modern media, we have better, faster knowledge than ever before of events happening around our countries and around the planet. But it can be tough to really comprehend the scale of what's happening when it's not happening in places we know well.

Matt Jones, a designer with Berg, the design firm behind the BBC's Dimensions project, explains the thinking behind it on his firm's blog. One of the things, writes Jones, that he loves about these types of visualizations is "where something huge and momentous is made grokkable in the familiar." Of Dimensions, he writes, "I also love that that’s all it really does. It’s a bit like a digital toy -- that just does one thing, very clearly (we hope) and delights in doing so."

The Dimensions visualization above shows the area flooded in the recent Pakistan disaster, as it compares to the east coast of the United States. And here's a look at how much of the United States Chernobyl's radiation cloud would have covered had it happened in Texas. (Hint: just about all of it.)

But Dimensions does more than disasters. Here's the Apollo moonlanding in downtown London, if Silicon Valley were in New York City, the Mardi Gras Rex Parade if it left from Paris, and what the span of the world's deepest borehole would be if it were laid flat across Los Angeles.

Check out the BBC's new Dimensions project here.