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Last active Mar 21, 2016
What would you like to do?

Hi [redacted],

Some answers for you:

What interested you in composing this image and what does it mean to you.

I work on satellite imagery at Mapbox, so I see a lot of pictures of Earth. I’ve always been interested in the history and culture around the Whole Earth: the image of the sunlit planet floating in space. When the Himawari-8 data started coming out, I tried different things with it, and the most compelling for me was that Whole Earth – what we call a full disk image. Because you get a frame every 10 minutes, you can make a fairly smooth animation, and I wanted to show that off. We don’t get a lot of chances to think about the face of the Earth as something in motion.

As for what it means to me personally, I think of a few things.

First, Donna Haraway’s classic paper “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” (Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575–599) on the view from nowhere, or the outside view, or the consumptive view: “I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere.” And later: “Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have to put the myth into ordinary practice.” A view from high orbit is never completely separable from a power fantasy, and so it’s always politically complicated. And it’s one reason I try to gesture to the physicality of the satellite and to the embodiment of color perception.

I recall Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot ( And I think of being very small, and having heard about faraway places in books and National Geographic, and then learning that we lived on Earth, and it contains all those places! You can get anywhere on the planet from anywhere else! It was amazing to learn that, and yet in everyday life I tend to forget it.

I reflect that seeing the perspective of the image as “down” is pretty arbitrary. This is also looking forward or back at Earth, or looking up at Earth. And if there were one thing I would have done differently if I’d thought of it, it would be not to put north at the top – a convention that’s useful enough in everyday life, but perhaps not necessary for something like this.

I regret that there’s no equivalent of this data for where I live, because the US government’s space science budget remains under the control of people who are afraid of science that makes their donors look bad.

And I remember Dr Mae Jamison saying, about the Overview Effect and what it’s like to look at Earth from outside, that: “In some ways [going to space] is almost a Rorschach test for what you believe in, right?”

These are some of the memories and ideas that come up as I watch the animation every few hours.

But overarchingly, what I get is not intellectual or even emotional, it’s affective. It’s awe and confused peace, a sense of floating on a wave of contradictory impressions: of being big and being small, of joy and sadness, distance and togetherness, departing and coming home. Borges wrote a story about the Aleph, which contains everything in the universe. It’s wonderful fiction to imagine that there could be any such object. But when you see Earth, you’re reminded that there is something, a giant ball of mostly rock, where every person we know has lived and died, where all the books were written, were every song was sung first. It’s a very sentimental feeling, and perhaps it can only survive in public when covered by science and technology’s dry authority.

Is this a pet project?

Yes. I’ve tinkered with the data since it started coming out, this summer. I’ve posted code to work with it ( and tweeted smaller versions ( intermittently. People liked them, but I thought a wider audience would be interested if the animations were bigger and had a little more explanation than fits in a tweet. My Sunday afternoon was free, so I sat in a coffeeshop and made the site.

Do you plan on making others?

Yes – I’ve done what I wanted to do with this particular style of animation, for now at least, but there’s a lot left to try with this dataset and others. Something I’d like to look at is smaller areas, maybe on the horizon, much more zoomed in that the one on the site now. And of course Himawari-8 is only one of many satellites producing beautiful data.

Also, do you hope that other people will start gathering their own data to compose satellite images?

Of course! That’s something I always encourage, professionally and personally. Satellite images are some of the most interesting and beautiful artifacts that humans make. While high-res ones tend to be very expensive, many medium and low-res ones (like what’s in the animation) are free. This is thanks to the open data policies of the US and other governments, which benefit everyone. Satellite imagery is an underappreciated public resource: for science and for weather forecasting, of course, but also for pure enjoyment. That joy is something I hoped to express.

What types of other questions have you been getting on the website?

Not that many! Before I did this, I looked at questions people asked about similar images, and tried to cover them in the Q&A section ( Most of the questions I get are from programmers who want to know about details of the processing, which is great – it means they’re experimenting too.

People ask why the animation doesn’t fit on their screen, and it’s because I didn’t want it to: I like scrolling around. I also get a lot of jokes on Twitter about Earth being flat, which are getting a bit old for me, but I know they’re in good fun.

Would we be able to use the image on our website with credits?

Ultimately, the data in that animation is from NICT and JMA, Japanese government agencies. My personal understanding is that they’ve released it for noncommercial use ( But you’d have to check with them; I can’t extend any kind of license or rights for their material.

If you have whatever clearance you need from them (or fair use coverage, whatever), I’m fine with your using the imagery with credit.

So just to be clear: I am fine with it, but I don’t know where you’d stand with NICT and JMA, and I’m not able to give you legal advice ;)

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