In an office at the Jet Propulsion Lab outside of Los Angeles, a data visualization specialist named Rachel Binx is working on an unusual challenge: Figuring out the best way for NASA’s engineers to understand incoming data from spacecraft. A small businessperson on the side and a former freelancer for MTV and the New York Times, Binx is one of a very small number of people worldwide working on data visualization products for space exploration.
Binx and her team in JPL's human interfaces group develop telemetry visualization products for spacecraft such as Cassini and the Mars rover Curiosity; her role is as a designer and developer for software tools for the spacecraft. As data is transmitted to Earth from the spacecraft, it needs to be visualized in a time-critical way for NASA’s engineers and specialists. That’s where Binx comes in.
"Visualizations are used to tell operators how to determine if things are normal," she says in an interview. "But the process works differently depending on the mission." When it comes to developing visualization products, Binx and her team are focused on two separate-but-intertwined tasks: Keeping things simple enough that information can easily be understood and extracted, and visualizing data in a way that makes it easy to see medium- and long-term trends.
For a designer who studied art history and math in college and has a background freelancing and working on quirky side projects (a GIF-printing business, for example), NASA is a major change of pace. But the ethos of translating complex data into digestible pieces has been a throughline in her career. She worked for the prestigious San Francisco visualization studio Stamen Design, which excels at artsying up big data sets. She created Monochrome a company that uses data pulled from OpenStreetMap to print maps on demand onto tank tops and skirts. She founded Meshu, a company that builds jewelry based on data extrapolated from maps. She has done visualization work for Airbnb, MoMA, Harvard, and other clients.
At JPL, one of her team’s main data visualization projects is a tool to help mission specialists make sense of text messages sent by spacecraft called Event Verification Records (EVRs). These records essentially describe what is happening either on Mars or in space, and are coded into a wide range of categories ranging from innocuous to potentially fatal. Binx has to make sure JPL can make sense of this constant data stream—and of numeric data sent every 30 seconds from the spacecraft as well.
Because data is sent from NASA’s spacecraft in both EVRs and other format, Binx and her team have to figure out ways to quickly represent that data, and make sure it’s leveraged in an optimal way. This means that the visualizations are often simple line charts—usefulness rather than flashiness is emphasized.
"Operators deal with both downlink and uplink data, but the daily process is viewing and analyzing the downlink data to determine the results of the last set of activities," Binx says. "(They) then create the sequence plan that will be sent as uplink for the next period of time. Each mission follows a similar protocol in creating sets of sequences, but the timing of how often downlink data is received, or how long it takes to create the uplink data varies by mission. For the MSL rover (Curiosity), it currently takes 10 hours to do this."
Luckily, NASA uses similar data formats for different missions, so Binx and her team don't have to reinvent the wheel each time. Innovations she is working on, such as maximizing quick, elastic search possibilities, can be leveraged for future missions.
In the meantime, Binx continues to work on both Monochome and Meshu as well as exploring new projects for NASA. As the space agency continues to deploy a diverse array of projects, she and her coworkers are likely to be very busy for some time.