Visualizing the future of Arizona

ASU, NOAA exercise examines next-gen satellite data's role in urban health and resilience

June 21, 2023

In 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders snapped a photo of the Earth emerging from shadow, its surface marbled with swirling clouds. Subsequently dubbed Earthrise, the photo has been called the most influential environmental photo in history and credited with kickstarting the environmental movement. 

The photo’s profound impact illustrates the importance of gaining perspective to improve understanding and awareness.   Satellite image of Arizona A nighttime image of Arizona from NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite on June 12. Image courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Download Full Image

The next generation of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites promises to deliver greater perspectives on Earth to help understand its complex systems more than ever before. Through high-quality data and observations, NOAA’s satellites will provide better insights and measurements for policymakers contending with a changing climate and safeguarding the public against extreme weather events. 

To better understand how these satellites will be used, Arizona State University and NOAA co-hosted a two-day exercise, bringing regional stakeholders together to examine hypothetical NOAA temperature and air quality data and its role in building a more resilient future. The event was part of NOAA’s Pathfinder Initiative, which gathers feedback to ensure current and future missions provide the data and services decision-makers need in a changing climate.

Data-driven decisions

The exercise was held at SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, on June 14–15 and convened representatives from city, county and state governments, as well as federal agencies and academic institutions. Participants examined three hypothetical scenarios impacting the Phoenix metropolitan area and theorized their agencies’ response and coordination. The first simulated a summer heat wave with unhealthy levels of ozone, the second an unhealthy air quality day combined with a fireworks event, and the third a dry haboob sweeping across the Valley of the Sun.

“We’re here to observe and listen,” said Vanessa Escobar, NOAA Pathfinder lead and senior policy advisor and user engagement scientist in NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS). “These exercises help us move things from a global and national perspective into the local context of our user community so NESDIS can better support the planning and decision-making needs of regional organizations through our services.”

For each scenario, participants were invited to explore how the hypothetical data would inform, influence or support their decision-making and communication to the public. Stakeholders discussed how to translate the data into actionable advisories based on different populations and their unique needs, as well as identified gaps and lapses in communication and coordination.

Air quality departments considered how to align messaging and distribute the same type of data, whether that meant simply using the Air Quality Index or providing more specific particulate matter and ozone data to inform the public of the risk. Phillip Scharf, representing Central Arizona Shelter Services, expressed the importance of distributing land surface temperature data alongside air temperature to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

Speaking at the start of the event, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego lauded participants for their role in making Phoenix a “decision-based city.” 

“It’s fascinating to see how science is used in public policy, and I'm so glad that you're here to help with the gaps and make sure we communicate that data more effectively, including to those who are most vulnerable and most in need,” she said. 

'A fire hose of data'

Each scenario relied on synthetic data created using NOAA observations of previous heat or air quality events to project what future NOAA satellite systems could potentially capture.

The data was generated by a team of ASU and NOAA researchers led by Tim Lant, director of program development at ASU Knowledge Enterprise. The team included Jiwei Li, an assistant professor in the School of Ocean Futures; Sean Bryan, an associate research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; Jennifer Vanos, associate professor in the School of Sustainability; Jianghai Peng, a geoscience PhD student in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; and Joseph Karanja, a geographic information science PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“We used a deep learning-based method to enhance the current one-kilometer resolution to something around a 10-meter resolution to allow stakeholders to see and imagine how more powerful satellites could deliver finer detail and better data products,” Li said.

Li likened the data to using a time machine to show people the technology they’ll have in 10 years’ time. 

“In the future, the data volume, handling and storage could be 10 to 100 times more than today. So, every agency needs to get ready for that, in staffing and skills and data space to handle that,” Li said. “How do they manage this data? How can they use it to better inform the public? How can they use it to prepare for these events?”

“We're going to have a fire hose of data,” Bryan added. “We're going to go from lacking data to having more images than we know what to do with. So, we'll need new software capabilities to combine these data in an automated way to present it to the user in a way that makes sense.” 

The increase in volume will directly translate into both spatial and temporal resolution for users. For example, instead of a singular air quality reading for a city or county, satellites of the future will be able to measure individual neighborhoods continuously, determining how healthy the air is at rapid intervals. 

Today’s challenges inform tomorrow’s technology

In addition to preparing public agencies for the future, the synthetic data used in these exercises guides NOAA’s development of future satellite systems and services. 

“We view this as an opportunity for advocacy,” said Andrew Heidinger, NOAA senior scientist. “If people are excited about this data, we can use that support to secure funding down the line. It also informs decisions on what the capabilities of future systems will be — we want to deliver what people want.”

Heidinger works on the Geostationary Extended Observations (GeoXO) satellite system, the next-generation observational system that informed the ASU-hosted exercise. Since 1975, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) have circled the globe, providing continuous atmospheric observation and data for NOAA and NASA. 

When the latest GOES satellite reaches the end of its service in the early 2030s, NOAA plans to launch the GeoXO system. GeoXO promises to greatly expand on the observational capabilities of GOES, improving forecasting and modeling, as well as providing advanced warning for environmental hazards such as wildfire, droughts and flooding. Impressive as it sounds, NOAA wants to ensure that the planned capabilities of GeoXO align with what users need.

This is accomplished through the NOAA Pathfinder Initiative, a program that partners with sophisticated local users to understand how they apply NOAA data to their decision-making needs through exercises. The feedback gathered from exercises supports the development of future NOAA services and missions. Members of the Pathfinder Initiative range from airlines and news corporations to federal and state agencies and universities such as ASU.

“When we looked at this Pathfinder study, we set out to look at its value for Maricopa County,” Escobar said. “And ASU essentially said, ‘We will bring everybody to the table because we have to approach this together.’”

This event marked the first Pathfinder exercise hosted by ASU and brought together the necessary organizations to provide feedback for GeoXO’s atmospheric composition instrument as well as other future NOAA services. Participants included federal, state and city-level agencies such as the National Weather Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the city of Phoenix Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

“NOAA creates amazing data for the United States,” Escobar said. “But we want to make sure that our information is accessible, digestible and actionable. So, having these discussions really helps us improve and ensures that our products, services and satellites are targeting the needs and the challenges environmentally. We want to build towards a future where NOAA provides the best and most reliable information at your fingertips.”

Pete Zrioka

Assistant director of content strategy, Knowledge Enterprise


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Keeping the LGBTQ+ community visible at ASU

June 21, 2023

A look at the history of Sun Devil groups who have fought for representation

When Casey Self came to Arizona State University in 1990, it was the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for gay people.

At that time, Arizona’s recently impeached governor, Evan Mecham, was known for being outspoken against gay people and gay rights — not exactly a welcoming environment for a gay man.

Still, Self, who came out in 1993, helped to form a group for gay faculty and staff at ASU called UBIQUITY in 1994 that pursued rights such as domestic partner benefits.

“Even that early, ASU was seeing some consequences of trying to recruit faculty and staff and not having an opportunity to offer potential employees domestic partner benefits for their loved ones,” said Self, who is senior director of academic advising for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU.

“And of course, back then it was also for networking and getting to know each other on campus.”

“We were very respectful. There was a process to get onto the distribution list,” Self said, because not everyone was fully out.

“In the early 1990s, there were people who maybe were out to the group but not to their bosses. We were still in a time when it wasn’t a common topic of discussion.”

Later, the LGBTQ+ Faculty and Staff Association was established in 2016 and merged with UBIQUITY.

Today, the association still looks to bolster its membership, as the organization has fluctuated a lot, according to Joshua Thompson, president of the group and manager of the Learning Experience Technology Studios.

“After gay marriage became legal (in 2015), the group dwindled in membership so we’re trying to reinvigorate it and get things started again.”

Self said the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation and sentiment across the country the past few years highlights the continuing need for organization.

“It’s nerve racking that it’s still here. That uneasiness still exists,” he said.

A history of fighting for rights

In 1974, a student group called the Lesbian and Gay Academic Union formed, according to an Associated Press article in ASU’s archives. But during the 1980s, the Associated Students Senate refused to fund the group for several years. A State Press newspaper article quoted a student senator as saying that the funding was denied because the group was “controversial.”

State Press article about LGBT discrimination lawsuit

Image courtesy University Archives.

Also, a July 1987 memo found in the university archives shows Gov. Mecham wrote to ASU President J. Russell Nelson, inquiring about a “homosexual club” on campus, stating: "I think the existence of a homosexual club on campus is a questionable activity and would like to hear from you relating to this matter.”

In response, Nelson said that he believed the Lesbian and Gay Academic Union had a right to exist under the First Amendment.

In the mid-90s, Self was involved in helping to re-energize the student group, becoming its co-advisor and working to create an LGBTQ studies certificate.

The student group also lobbied for events such as the Rainbow Convocation (formally known as the Lavender Convocation) and an annual awards ceremony.

Self said the student and employee groups then got together to create a list of things on campus they hoped would be addressed.

That included a better system for reporting bias incidents, more inclusion of the LGBTQ experience in the curriculum and a center for the LGBTQ community.

“We wanted the ASU nondiscrimination clause to include the LGBTQ community, and we went as far as asking that vendors and business partners don’t discriminate,” he said.

But the big issue was domestic partner benefits.

“I was part of a universitywide task force to look at all sorts of policies and procedures related to LGBTQ people and family members.

“And that is when the university decided to make domestic partnership benefits available, and so when somebody would ask about it, there was a contact in HR and the benefits became available.”

Staying visible

Pride Month was started in the early 1970s, after the Stonewall riots, as a way for queer people to celebrate their history without having to hide their identity.

Self has seen a lot of changes over the decades — even in the use of the word “queer,” which used to be a slur.

“I’ve finally accepted it and acknowledged that they are taking the term back as a power,” he said.

Now, ASU has an Out at ASU website linking to resources for the queer community, including links to student groups, a faculty guide for trans student inclusion in the classroom, SafeZONE training for faculty and staff, a guide to gender-neutral restrooms on campus, gender-inclusive housing accommodations for students, an email template for requesting asserted names and pronouns, voice training and events throughout the year.

Self said that, personally, he did not experience discrimination at ASU.

“I consider myself very fortunate. In my whole time at ASU, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt discriminated against in terms of policies or processes that kept me from being able to do something I needed or wanted to do.”

Self says the community needs to work to stay visible, and that’s what the Queer Faculty and Staff Association is doing as it recharges.

“We’re trying to raise the bar,” Self said.

“We can’t let things slide. We can’t let people be invisible. … We know that we work in a state where things are OK now, but, depending on an election, things could change in a heartbeat.”

University Archivist Shannon Walker assisted with this story.

Top photo: Casey Self, senior director of academic advising for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, helped form a group for gay faculty and staff in the early 1990s. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News