How Much Is Left?

“If the 20th century was an expansive era seemingly without boundaries – a time of jet plans, space travel and the Internet – the early years of the 21st century have showed us the limits of our small world.” This stark statement begins the introduction of How Much Is Left ?, a Flash-based interactive created for the magazine Scientific American by Zemi, the people behind FLYP. Time, that is, how much time we have before we run out of resources if our consumption levels don’t change, is the focus of How Much Is Left?

How It Works

Befitting the topic, an interactive timeline is at the centre of How Much Is Left? The estimated lifespans of 16 different resources are tracked from 1976 to 2560. One by one, each resource comes to an end. In 1976 the glaciers start to melt. In 2014, we will hit peak oil. In 2072, we will have used up 90% of the coal available to us. In 2560, we run out of Lithium, a key metal used to make batteries.

At the point on the timeline when each resource runs out, there is an icon to click on that brings up the main content: a pop up with text, a graphic (sometimes static, sometimes interactive), and occasionally a short audio track providing further information about that resource.

The timeline is organized by resource type: 4 minerals, 2 fossil fuels, 2 forms of biodiversity, 2 food sources, and 4 water sources. Each type is colour coded and the user can choose to turn off all but one resource type if they wish.

In addition to the timeline, there are also five documentary-style videos, one for each type of resource, about the depletion of that resource, with related footage and graphics intercut. Finally, there is a poll that asks users whether or not technological innovation will solve the problem of shrinking resources (as of this post, 54% of people said no).

What Works, What Doesn’t

The best thing about How Much Is Left? is that it doesn’t try to do too much. The focus is on the timeline. There aren’t additional sections that might bog down the overall experience. If the user wants further information, the videos corral together different bits of context (expert interviews, related footage and further graphics) in one place for easy watching.

Visually, the timeline works great. Using different colours for different resource types makes it easy to follow the different resources as time goes on. And the dwindling number of lines as time passes certainly makes an impression.

It also works well as a way to navigate through the content. When navigation tools are built into to the content itself instead of being presented in a separate menu, it can add to the overall experience. In How Much Is Left?, the user already knows an important piece of information – the year the resource will run out – before they click on the icon to see the pop up. The only problem is that the user has no idea what that specific resource is until they click on the icon. The only identification given on the timeline itself is the colour indicating what category of resource it is.

However, the pop ups themselves are not so well done.  The information varies from overly general, dull text (“Indium is a silvery meal that sits next to platinum on the periodic table and shares many of its properties such as its color and density”) to dense graphs that are not well explained.

It sometimes takes a minute to understand how the information corresponds to the date the resources runs out on. For example, in 2025, some countries will have slightly less water available per capita per year. Why the year 2025 is particularly significant is never explained.

And why audio is used in some pop ups instead of text seems to have been done only to limit the amount of reading the user would have to do. The information presented in each form is pretty much interchangeable in tone and substance.

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