Mapping data from Indonesia’s disaster information portal

Maps are great for decision-making (ex. where’s the nearest restaurant, how to get from point A to B)… they’re even better when you know how use them to help analyze data and information (thank you geography degree). A lot of data visualization automation software exists now that can produce charts, graphs and even maps to help see trends and patterns. But when it comes to really understanding and analyzing information, there’s still a lot to be said about including a human touch/perspective to data and information visualization.

One of the projects I’ve been working on is to capture and analyze disaster-induced displacement information for the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and it’s Global Report on Internal Displacement and Global Internal Displacement Database. One of things IDMC wants to know when a disaster strikes, like a flood, hurricane or earthquake, is how many people are displaced? It’s a simple research question that usually doesn’t lead to a straight-forward answer. Challenges can include lack of government monitoring for this kind of information, data collection and standardization issues, accessibility of said data, or even the political nature of publishing and sharing this information.


Fortunately some governments actually do a great job in collecting, processing, and publishing this kind of information. Indonesia is one of them. The government provides a disaster data portal which it maintains on a regular basis that tracks where a disaster takes place, when it happens, what kind of hazard triggered the disaster event, and the people killed, missing, injured and displaced/evacuated. For one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, having this kind of information online, updated and easily accessible is an asset for research organizations like IDMC to be able to develop policies and recommendations that can have an impact on saving lives.

While the website has automatic visualization features, it requires a lot of assumptions and understanding by the user to know what to search for. At the same time, it is a bit challenging to use since it’s an online portal that has limited visualization and analysis capabilities. As part of my research, I decided to put my geography background to work to make sense of this data.

The mapping feature from BNPB disaster data portal -
The mapping feature from BNPB disaster data portal –

I downloaded the raw data in Excel format and in most situations a quick manipulation of Excel can reveal some trends. However the Excel included too many data points with differing variables like event date, hazard type, and location. I wanted to find a better way to make sense of its data so I decided to plot the data using QGIS, a free open-source Geographic Information System (GIS).

Here’s a quick summary of what I did:

  1. The Excel included raw district-level disaster information that goes back as far as 1815. I only need 2016 data so I filtered the data set and extracted all 2016 data that included “Mengungsi” or evacuation values greater than zero.
  2. In order to plot the data on a map, I needed to add spatial information to the data set. As the Indonesian data was broken down by districts, a quick search led me to district boundary level data published by the World Food Programme – unfortunately I couldn’t find district-level spatial data on the government website.
  3. Once I joined the Excel sheet with the district boundaries, I still needed to clean and verify that all districts in the government disaster data set matched the WFP district boundary data set. This is key otherwise the data can’t be mapped by QGIS.
  4. Since no GPS locations were included to pinpoint exactly where each disaster occurred, I defined a centroid (i.e. a point at the centre of each district boundary). This allowed me to plot each event as a specific point on the map to help in analyzing and aggregating information since multiple events can take place in one district.

It may not have been pretty, but it did make it easier to interpret the data based on hazard type, event date, and geographic location. And it made it more effective to work with when I wanted to conduct further analysis, run queries to address different research questions, and produce maps like the ones below.

Evacuations Events-by-Date Events-by-Hazard-Type Total-Events-by-District

Data visualization automation software and websites can be useful, but it’s also great to have a skill like old-school mapping and cartography to turn to when I need it… times and projects like these make me realize how useful a geography degree can be.

OCHA by the numbers inspired by this peacock

I had to learn a couple of things when I joined OCHA’s Visual Information Unit just over one year ago: deal with strange visitors at my window and interesting requests. For the first few months at my new office, I had this peacock and its family, allowed to roam freely on grounds of the UN, showing up either knocking its beak on the window or trying to jump on to the scaffolding. Not only was this unsettling, it was also the time when I was asked to work on the ‘OCHA by the numbers’ graphic for the 2013 annual report.

It was kind of like “hey you’re the new guy… here’s a project that you can work on for the annual report”. I was like “no pressure, right?” especially since annual reports are usually a big deal particular when it comes to justifying how money and funds were spent over the course of the year and a way to look for more. On top of all this was the fact that I was just given a MS Word document full of numbers and stats that I had to make sense of. And it didn’t help that the peacock would pass by everyday to look into our office window.


Maybe it was the way the bird has two distinct looks to it, and since this was for the corporate report, that I decided to split the graphic into two sections to highlight to readers what were the priorities for the organization and how the funds were spent. While the big numbers and country silhouettes provided visual interest to the one-pager, I really enjoyed working on the bar charts made of little squares which each represent USD 10 million – not the easiest thing to do as a bit of math was involved to make sure that the number of row and columns fit nicely in the space I had. One thing I found most interesting working on these charts was the comparison between how much funding was required by the humanitarian community to respond to crises and disasters and how little OCHA uses to achieve its mission to:

  • Mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors in order to alleviate human suffering in disasters and emergencies.
  • Advocate the rights of people in need.
  • Promote preparedness and prevention.
  • Facilitate sustainable solutions.

Download the PDF version here on the 2013 OCHA Annual Report website… Some credit should go to the peacock for the inspiration!

Show Don’t Tell – what I learned from Malofiej’s workshop

In March, I had to make a choice between going to Sendai, Japan for the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction or to Pamplona, Spain for the 23rd edition of Malofiej. It was a tough choice… Japan was something that I’ve been involved with and following for the past few years, while Spain was something new and a great opportunity to learn from and meet some of best in the business when it comes to infographics…. also another tough choice was sushi or tapas. I opted for tapas.

The theme for Malofiej23 was Graphics Straight Into the Vein and the gory yet enticing program cover highlighted the fact that it takes 23 seconds for blood to flow through the human body. With this kind of creative communication, how could I not be intrigued to go and find out more? And while the actual infographics world summit takes place over the final two days of Malofiej, the most interesting part of the week was the three days before with its Show Don’t Tell Workshop.

Participants from the Malofiej23 Show Don't Tell Workshop
Participants from the Malofiej23 Show Don’t Tell Workshop

The workshop was an opportunity to learn from three of the best infographics leaders in the business (John Grimwade, Geoff McGhee, and Alberto Cairo) and work with 19 professionals in the world of journalism (ex. BBC), corporate communications (ex. McKinsey), and design. The participants came from various backgrounds, including illustration, web design, data analysis, editorial, and communications with one purpose – how to develop an idea and improve the process of designing and communicating information visually.


Every year the workshop has a field trip and this year was no different. Instead of going to historic or artistic places like was done in the past, we went to some place more interesting… a factory! Actually it was the Volkswagen Navarra factory, one of the main factories in the world that makes the Volkswagen Polo – one every 55 seconds. Our instructions were simple: take one issue (i.e. the tour of the factory grounds) and find a innovative, creative, and visual way to communicate its story.

Participants working hard on their ideas. One of the instructors said that it smelled like a design studio. I didn't get what he meant until I left the room. It was like a mix of humidity, sweat and stale air.
Participants working hard on their ideas. One of the instructors said that it smelled like a design studio. I didn’t get what he meant until I left the room. It was a mix of humidity, sweat and stale air.

With such a vague goal, it was interesting to see what groups came up with and it had nothing to do with pretty colors, the kinds of tools used, or what the finally product looked like. Instead the instructors wanted participants to go beyond their normal thinking and to focus on the idea. One group developed a infographics poster that showed the distribution and carbon footprint of Polo parts, another analyze the robots that put the cars together, one came up with an interactive website on the history and details of the factory, and another group came up with an interesting website that showed how a Polo was made.

We were called the "Super Group" from the start since we started with three members while everyone else had at least four people. The group ended up being four guys, but we still thought of ourselves as being super. Here we are taking a break after lunch.
We were called the “Super Group” from the start since we started with three members while everyone else had at least four people. The group ended up being four guys, but we still thought of ourselves as being super. Here we are taking a break after lunch.

My group was comprised of an infographics editor from Amsterdam, an illustrator and designer from Berlin, and a corporate communications consultant from Dubai. We came up with the idea of using the Volkwasgen’s data and the factory tour to develop an app that would provide a new Polo owner with a unique and personalized real-time update of the assembly of their car. Even though this was just about the idea, Volkswagen had us sign a confidentiality agreement so I probably can’t say more. However, I’m proud that my group’s idea was eventually voted the winner of the group activity… and doing it all with paper and pencil – our group was the only group that didn’t use a computer to put together the final presentation.

My personal symbol
My personal symbol

It was great to work on the group project, but the scariest part of the whole workshop was that we were given an individual project and with only an hour to work on it. Not only was I intimidated by all the people who were fabulous artists, but also that we had to present our own idea to the whole group. The project? To come up with a personal symbol, which could be inspired by an interest, experience or interpretation. The results varied with mostly hand-drawn illustrations, like mine above (eek!). In the end the person’s symbol who received the most votes integrated an origami structure with simple icons that represented her life – this was her first “infographic” showing that an engaging and innovative way to communicate can come from anyone as long as the idea is simple and clear.


Disaster graphics get bronze prize for international information design award

One of the buzz words these days is “infographics”. While these can range from just simple pie graphs to complex flowcharts, the best aren’t necessary the most “designed”. The most effective information graphics are ones that can communicate an idea or story and that can help the audience turn information into knowledge. This also means going through a design thinking process and understanding the subject matter so the “design” matches the objective of what the graphic is trying to communicate.

This was the philosophy I took when coming up with infographics for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). On a whim and to share my love for communicating information and data, I decided to enter a couple of infographics for the 2014 IIIDAward.


While I had an honorable mention in the 2011 IIIDAward, whaddya know, the graphics I entered this time around won third prize for two categories:

Didactics: “A timeline revisited”
This category was for projects that focus on educational or instructional information design – Download my entry here.


Editorial: “Making sense of disaster data”
This category was for projects related to media, journalism and writing – Download my entry here


The selection criteria was based on:

  1. Quality of the employed problem solving procedure:
    – identifying the information needs of users
    – making needed information available, accessible, understandable/usable
    – assessing the effectiveness of the provided information, if at all possible
  2. Attractiveness and elegance of the designed information

The IIIDAward is part of the International Institute for Information Design (IIID), a global network of individuals and organizations who are interested in optimizing information and information systems for knowledge transfer in everyday life, business, education and science. Its aims are to stimulate internationally the development, recognition and good practice of information design in its broadest sense.

All winners will have their work exhibited on a global tour. The first stop for the exhibition is the IIID Vision Plus 2015 conference in Birmingham:
All winners will have their work exhibited on a global tour. The first stop for the exhibition is the IIID Vision Plus 2015 conference in Birmingham –

Free work for free ideas… for humanitarian education

    Ideas and solutions coming from an HFCP simulation workshop in Bangkok, Thailand
Ideas and solutions coming from an HFCP simulation workshop in Bangkok, Thailand

There’s something to be said about pro-bono work, especially when it’s for a good cause and the people involved are quite open about ideas. It’s a fair trade isn’t it – getting free work for free ideas? So when I was asked to help out on visualizing information, how could I say no, especially from my wife? She ran the Humanitarian Field Coordination Programme (HFCP) for OCHA in 2013-2014 and wanted to come up with a nice end-of-cycle report to highlight the programme cycle. This project was also a good opportunity to put my creative muscles through a workout during my hiatus from work. There were plenty of data collected during the one-year program that could be highlighted in the report, but with good information design comes understanding the story and message to communicate.


The main message was to communicate the global nature of the report as well as the overall (positive) impressions and subject matter the HFCP provides to OCHA staff. Each phase of the programme was quite unique so each graphic was designed slightly different. I had about a week to work on the full report, including interpreting the data, copy-editing the text, and developing a structure for the information.


I was already familiar with OCHA’s style having followed the process and design changes over the years. I made sure to stick with what I saw for this report. The only thing I really went out on a limb on was to use a “teaching” font for the titles. I recently discovered that OCHA’s corporate font is Arial because it’s the most easily accessible and used font for its offices.


The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched the HFCP in 2008 to cover the core areas of OCHAs work and is organized around a blended peer-learning structure comprised of three phases. This includes 1) knowledge-based online learning; 2) skills building workshop; and 3) self-development learning. Over 500 OCHA staff members have participated to date.

Stop calling these events ‘natural’ disasters…

In the first week of November 2013, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones every recorded made it’s way through Southeast Asia. Typhoon Haiyan, known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, left a trail of destruction which galvanized international humanitarian support and media attention. There was a lot of interest in how many people were affected, killed, and how the public can help – and a lot of this awareness was being visualized using infographics (see below screenshot from a Google image search). With all this focus on the death and destruction, I was urgently requested to come up with a visual.


Rather than continuing along the same lines like everyone else, I wanted to highlight the long-term impacts and economic implications from the disaster and a message that our UNISDR team has consisted drilled home: that disasters are not natural, but an interaction between where we live, how we create risks, and how vulnerable we are.

Disasters don’t happen in isolation and have far reaching implications than just the people who died. The bar and line graph was an attempt to show that while deaths from disasters have been decreasing for the Philippines over the last 20 years, the economic costs are increasing impacting the future development of the country. There was also a lot of talk about the height of the storm surge and I wanted to show what a 4m high storm surge looked like in comparison to the average height of a two-story house – interviews with people verified that in some places waves reached the second floor of buildings. With a concept brewing around the graphic, our team was also covering the climate change conference (COP 19) which took place in Poland as the Philippines felt the wrath of Haiyan. When it came time for the Philippines to speak, they also repeated UNISDR’s message – a great quote to tie everything together for the graphic.


More probably could’ve been done with the graphic if there was more time, data, analysis, and research, but overall it’s a unique forward-looking visual to communicate a complex situation – something to inspire people to think more broadly about disasters like Haiyan. Download the graphic here.

Behind the scenes on the 2013 IDDR infographics

Tomorrow is October 13th. To most people, it’s just another day, but to those who believe in and work to reduce disaster risks, the 13th of October is the day to celebrate the International Day for Disaster Reduction (IDDR). This year the focus of IDDR is on some one billion people around the world who live with some form of disability. Representing one-fifth of the world’s population, persons living with disabilities (PWDs) have unique contributions, often overlooked, to help reduce the risk of disasters and build resilient societies and communities. Here’s a look at what went into the infographics to “step up” the issue.


One of the major outcomes of this year’s IDDR is a survey that was conducted to gain insight into the views of people living with disabilities and how they cope with disaster situations. The online global survey collected responses in English, French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Bahasa Indonesia, and at the same time some disability organizations ran the survey offline in Bangladesh, Thailand, and VietNam. The 22-question survey included a lot of stats and figures that ranged from understanding respondents’ disabilities to if they have a plan for disaster situations.

Over 5000 people from 126 countries made the effort, sometimes with the help of a relative or friend, to fill in the survey. With the amount of data crunching that went into the survey, it was a shame just to write about the findings. To give it more visibility, I created 3 infographics highlighting some of the major findings. The key to the visualizations was to both highlight the challenges PWDs have in dealing with disasters, but also to bring their voices to the forefront in terms of what they want for the future. With all the stats and the comments submitted, I decided to create different variations – I hate when too much information and stats are packed into graphics or text because it just defeats the purpose of communicating what’s most important.

There are some interesting aspects of the overall summary that presented themselves once I finished putting the visual touches to the data and info. The first is the regional spread, which was not covered in the initial announcement of the preliminary findings, and how it shows the distribution of survey responses. Most responses came from Asia, particularly from the offline survey responses collected from Bangladesh which numbered over 1500. I also went through the comments and found ones that came from the region to give the data a little more context. The second interesting note for this graphic is the responses to the “Are you aware of a disaster risk reduction plan?” question. We didn’t see the trend in the raw data, but once I graphed it you can see that most respondents indicated that they are NOT aware of either a national or local level disaster risk reduction plan. I can understand if people didn’t know of a national plan, but not event a local one? This is a bit of a scary thought, especially for both national and local governments… I wonder what the trend would look like if the question was asked to “able-bodied” people?

Word clouds are great – they’re both visualizing engaging and actually make you think about the issues/context. For the survey, some of the most interesting responses weren’t just the quantitative stuff, but also all the qualitative ones where people actually took the time to write down their concerns and ideas. We focused on looking at two questions in the survey. The first was Question 8 and having a personal preparedness plan. Surprisingly, 71% of respondents said they don’t. Of the 29% who said they did, the most common words that showed up in their responses were “water, plan, food, family, and supplies”, which gives a bit of sense as to what’s most important to people living with disabilities… And also what disaster responders should plan and prepare for should a disaster happen – would “able-bodied” people care about the same things?

Finally, the Word cloud for Question 19 on priorities to include in a new disaster risk reduction framework holds some interesting insight. In 2015, the world will come together to adopt a new framework to succeed the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015). For people living with disabilities, “information and communication” are the most common priorities they want, as well as ones that address their “needs” and making things “accessible”. In an age where information and communication is literally at our fingertips, it’s a revealing sign that people living with disabilities would like these to be a priority – does that mean information and communication technologies (ICTs) aren’t currently meeting their needs? Would “able-bodied” people be asking for the same priorities?

If you like the infographics, you can download them here.


The Book: IIIDaward 2011


In 2011, the International Institute for Information Design (IIID) was celebrating its 25th anniversary. As part of its celebration and in cooperation with Axis Magazine and the Taiwan Design Center, it launched its inaugural Award for recognizing the best in what information design has to offer. The organization’s aim is to promote and expand design knowledge and research on information design and is recognized as the world leader in information design development. So I was quite honored to have received an email back in 2011 about being selected by the Jury for Didactics category (projects that focus on educational or instructional information design) of the Award.

All the selected nominations were eventually put together in an Award book. Even though it took a year to receive the physical book, I’m glad to see I’m in good company – my project is on page 128. The next Award will be in 2014 and entries can be submitted starting in November.



2013 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction

The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR) comes out every 2-years and is an assessment of global situation on reducing disaster risks and provides a comprehensive overview and analysis on key issues and what governments are doing to prevent disasters. GAR13 is the third edition of the report, entitled From Share Risk to Shared Value: the Business case for Disaster Risk Reduction, and was officially launched in New York by the UN Secretary-General and just before the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction. The 2013 report looks at how public regulation and private investment shape disaster risks.

The Tangible Earth

Each edition of the GAR focuses on a different theme while providing an indepth analysis on disaster risk reduction around the world, which includes the release of new data and models on DRR. For the GAR13 edition, in addition to the traditional print report, a couple of innovative things were done:

  • The report has an ‘augmented’ reality version – basically the report interacts with a tablet (i.e. iPad) to provide more real-time and interactive data and graphics
  • Data and information for the report is being used by the Tangible Earth Project – a physical educational global projected with real-time climate data and information, as well as examples of challenges and solutions to reducing disaster risks.

To support the visualization of the reports key themes and messages, I researched and put together over 120 examples of DRR challenges and solutions that was used for the Tangible Earth. I allso developed the above infographic. Given the nature of the report and it’s focus on the financial industry and economic focus, I wanted the graphic to be simple and ‘corporate’ – meaning lots of white space with numbers and text around the cost-benefits of disaster risk reduction. Also, the iconography (again the great set provided by UNOCHA) was used to interpret hazards and symbology that would resonate with the private sector. You can download a hi-res version of the graphic here.

Finally, just out of interest to promote the report, I took a friend’s video from the printing of the first paper report and made a short trailer. What do you think?

GAR13 from Vincent Fung on Vimeo.

Not just an update, but a redesign

Disaster Impacts / 2000-2012

The hugely popular infographic I designed for UNISDR on the impacts of disasters from 2000-2011 required a bit of an update. And with over 7,000 views already on Flickr, it was pretty straightforward to update it with new stats from CRED for 2012. But just updating the graphic wasn’t enough. There were some trials and tribulations designing this infographic and I wanted to address them in this updated version.

First, UNISDR had a new brand in early 2013 and so we needed to rebrand the design with the organization’s new corporate visual identity. This included an updated logo with visual interest (i.e. see the color band underneath the logo?). Instead of using the corporate blue which not only made the graphic color heavy for printing, but having a bit more white space created a fresher and modern look to the graphic. Also with more white space, the title of the graphic pulls you in. And instead of the standard credits/metadata that I had learned and applied in the lower corners of OCHA situation maps, the style of putting the credits in a line under the title was elegant, non-intrusive, and just worked.

Second, after having done some user research, the most commonly used numbers were the large accumulated totals. Even though proportional numbers (think %) would provide a better representation, according to CRED, the accumulated totals were referenced regularly. This made it clear that these numbers should stand out more in this updated graphic.

Finally, the line chart provided a simple snapshot of the peaks and valleys of the disaster impacts for the three variables. Having them stretch across the width of the page also made them take a backseat and gave prominence to the total numbers. Rather than put the icons of major events below the graph, which I found drew eyes away from the story of the lines, situating them just by their peaks made it that much more readable. I also removed the borders around the icons to make the design more elegant. While the colors in the totals matched the line graph, I also understood that the graphic gets printed and most likely in B&W. So there are small titles on the left side to repeat the categories.

Thanks to OCHA again for making these icons available on the Noun Project and ReliefWeb.

The graphic can be found on Flickr here.


UPDATE 4 July 2013 – in a bit of daze, I wrote this for another post until I realized I already had written about this infographic above…

Try not to be boring when designing an infographic

I find updating an infographic infinitely more challenging than doing one for the first time. Blame it on my creative right-hemisphere brain the fact of just updating an infographic with revised data is down-right boring. There are several reasons for this. One, when I create an infographic, its a snapshot in time of the data currently available, the design variables that I have on hand, and the story that I want to tell. Two, since its a snapshot, reproducing the same graphic with new data (i.e. adding another year of info), doesnt make the graphic special anymore. And also since humans are typically visual creatures, an infographic that just has a new set of data with the same design doesnt stand out how would you know that the first graphic is different than the second? Finally, where is the challenge is just doing the same old thing when you can learn from what was wrong the first time to improve the next time?

Based on these principles, I took the challenge of taking the yearly release of disaster statistics by CRED to come up with a new way to visualize the stats from 2000-2012. Its not drastically new, but it does incorporate feedback from people, as well as try to develop a stronger visual hierarchy that draws people into the graphic step by step. The original idea capitalized on the 10-year trend of global disaster damage, people affected, and mortality. The updated version for 2012 provided the same visual trend, yet with more of an emphasis on the total numbers since this was what people tended to focus on from the graphics so why not make it more obvious and easier to see? Another innovation was to highlight the key disaster events by the peaks/valleys of the data trend rather than having to move your eyes away from the graph to find the info.

Overall, I think the infographic turned out to be a creative way to communicate the same thing but with a slight update to keep it fresh, relevant and visual. If we cant outdo ourselves or learn from our mistakes and try new things based on what weve learned, it would just be boring and ineffective.

You can download the updated version here:

(By the way, happy 4th of July to all my American friends and family!)