Putting tidal waves into crunchable data
The San Francisco Bay has powerful, silent tidal currents that influence all objects it comes in contact with. And Boriana “Bobbie” Viljoen has observed first hand the horrors of people being swept away by this invisible “river.”
As a designer and a surfer, the SF State master’s student has identified a problem with the current ways of visualizing tidal currents. They are hard to understand and inaccurate when it comes to direction, strength and timing, and understood only by sailors with decades of local knowledge.
The Bulgarian native is completing her masters in design and art industries this semester, and has lived in the Bay Area for 12 years to pursue a career in combining her deep love of water sports with data design.
And for over a decade she has windsurfed in Berkeley and kite surfed across the San Francisco Bay, mainly sailing out of Crissy Field Beach, where she sees people from all over the world who come to enjoy water sports. It is there where she found a place for her master’s thesis study: “Tidal Currents: The Silent Force of the San Francisco Bay”.
She took it upon herself to meet science with design. Although two engineers at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies created the app called “Currents Cumalitive Work” in 2010, she is designing the best way to communicate what the water is doing in a visual sense.
The app explores tidal data visualization on touchscreen mobile devices specifically regarding San Francisco Bay. “You want to know where the water is going so you can anticipate where it is going to take you,” she said. “My research is trying to find ways to communicate with people the movement of currents.”
And for non-locals, she sees a major problem time and time again.
“You dont realize how dangerous it can be,” she said as she gestured towards the large ships in the water at Crissy Field. “It is a big shipping channel…the ships can’t stop for you. If you’re in their way you are in trouble, you have to avoid them.”
There is a silent force of currents that actually move the water – and it is very complex because of the topography of land below the ocean.
“As a sailor, I look at patterns in the water. I’ve been sailing here for eight years and why my study is relevant goes back to Alcatraz…so many people try to swim it and become victim to what the water is doing to them, they can’t make it, the water was taking them to places they didn’t intend,” she said.
“You could use it to your advantage or you could be in trouble,” she said. “In my thesis, I tell the case of my good friend Alan, a kitesurfer in L.A. who came to Crissy Field on a day when no one was out there in the water…everyone warned him there was a strong flood.”
He was flushed out toward Alcatraz and couldn’t return to the beach where he began. There is nowhere to safely make it to land, nothing but harsh water slamming him towards the sharp rocks. Luckily, a boat eventually picked him up safely.
“He learned a big lesson. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t come back to the beach where he started from, because the water was pushing him down even though he was a good kite surfer,” she explained. “Don’t ever try to swim against the current, you’re going to get tired and the water never gets tired.”
With her research, she is combining design and engineering that the Romberg Tiburon Center did taking radio waves that bounce off water from multiple sensors around the bay.
Due to the technological advancements in mobile devices and innovations for visualizing real time complex data, there is an opportunity to reach water users, to educate and prepare them for their experience on the water.
The water speed rapidly changes, and with the app she knew exactly where to pick up the faster current during a race last year. She pulled ahead of 10 competitors to win first place.
“I chose to go closer to shore because I knew the current had changed and it was stronger there,” she said. “I knew it would push me up like an escalator.”
Even in America’s Cup, strategists are hired who only learn currents to know what place and time it’ll change where they will be.
“Data visualization developers are really hard to find right now, they are in high demand,” she said. “To take raw data every second and update the system…”
It is undeniably complex, but in this designer’s eyes, an app that is essential for water users of all types.
See the full collection on Medium at: https://medium.com/a-byte-of-the-valley