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.

I always forget how to convert simple text strings into dates in Excel

Despite having the world’s knowledge at my finger tips (i.e. the internet), I always forget little tips on how to do things in Excel. Yes, there’s bookmarks and other different ways to save websites, but I can never find them again after I saved them! So maybe writing a blog about it might be a good way to remember and also to help other people out there who come across this same problem.

This is one of the most annoying things when working with text and numbers in Excel… getting text to be in a “date” format. It makes life a whole lot easier when running queries or trying to sort/filter/order numerical values rather than text. While there are a lot of ways to do it (see this link for example), the following method is the most straight-forward way for me to convert text into a date/number and it works every time.

So here goes…

You come across dates as a string of text and they look like this:

  • 1.1.2015
  • 1.2015
  • 01 01 2015
  • 2015/1/1

In my example, the dates come out as dd/mm/yyyy format but it really is text.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 2.34.20 PM

Select the text you want to convert and then go to ‘Data>Text to Columns’

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A dialog box will open. Just keep the selection as ‘Delimited’ and click ‘Next.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 2.36.58 PM

On the next dialog box, select which ever delimiter is what separates the day, month and year for your text dates. In my example, “/” separates my text so I selected ‘Other’ and then inputted ‘/’.  This puts each number into its own column. Click ‘Next’.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 2.38.55 PM

In the final dialog box, just keep everything the way it is and change the destination to where you want the new columns to be added. Click ‘Finish’.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 2.41.31 PM

This puts each number from the text dates into their own column.

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Now I need to combine the numbers into the format that I want (yyyy-mm-dd). This requires a simple equation to merge the values in each column based on the order of the values I want.


Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 3.46.03 PM

Once the numbers are merged, I need to copy the values (not the equations) into a new column in the “date” format. Under ‘Edit’, select ‘Paste Special’ and then choose ‘Values’. Click ‘Ok’.

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 4.03.24 PM

While the converted value is a number, in order to turn it into dates that Excel can recognize, I need to run a simple equation using ‘=Value (cell number)’.

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I then redo the ‘Paste Special’ process on the ‘Value Equation’ column to move the values into a column that is formatted as ‘Date’.

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There’s probably a quicker way to do this, but this is the best way I’ve found that provides the most control on addressing the number rather than fiddling with Excel’s functions to format columns… and it works every time.

Global Citizenship in the 21st Century. No pressure, right?

It’s really great to hear that York House School, one of the most prestigious private schools in Vancouver, puts resources towards supporting students by also emphasizing personal/mental health for students. Last year I had a great time sharing my experience with the inner workings of the United Nations with the School’s model UN class. So I was happy to give another talk when the counseling team recently invited me to speak to sixty Grade 12 students about how I got into the UN and the unconventional way that my life has taken. The purpose of the talk was to support the students’ personal health and planning and to highlight that there are alternative paths after high school.

“Global Citizenship in the 21st Century” was the topic and it’s quite broad… so it made sense that I would talk about my UN experience…. but I also wanted to share my experience and views on how becoming a “global citizen” isn’t necessarily a fixed path. While I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done internationally, the most valuable thing that I’ve learned from these experiences isn’t so much the traveling and living abroad, but to be open, curious, understanding and respectful of the people and the environment. Honestly there are people I know who’ve not really traveled much and who are more “global” in their outlook… while there are some people I’ve met during my travels who are not as “global” in perspective as you might think.

My last year of high school.
My last year of high school.

I never thought of being a “global citizen” when I was about to graduate from high school (and I still don’t). I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do after grade 12. I figured going to University was the thing to do since everyone else was doing it.

It's really to easy to give advice, but sometimes it should be taken with a grain of salt. Banana Man - taken on the island of Kyushu, Japan.
It’s really easy to give advice and direction, but sometimes it should be taken with a grain of salt. Banana Man – taken on the island of Kyushu, Japan.

There’s a lot of pressure (and advice) to start thinking about and doing something about your career and/or life when it’s time to graduate high school. From the sounds of it, the current generation of students needs to be “well rounded”, with lots of volunteering and academic experiences under their belt, in order to be considered for university. I’m all for balancing high school and extra curricular/volunteering activities, but I don’t think it should be what defines whether or not you can go to university. That’s too much pressure, physically and mentally, on students… instead, why not make it mandatory that after high school university-bound students are ask to take, say, six months off and do something with this time? And as part of university admissions to ask applicants what they did with these six months and why…

My resume a couple years ago when I thought it would be interesting to map out my work, education, and volunteer background.
My resume from a couple of years ago when I thought it would be interesting to map out my work, education, and volunteer background.

Part of the process of being a global citizen is to figure out who you are, what you like and/or don’t like. And that means trying things and exploring your possibilities. It’s not possible to have all the answers from just books alone, there’s a lot that can be learned and that can help a person grow through experience. It shouldn’t be forced, but rather do things that you want to do rather than what is expected of you… All this helps not only to build up a resume but also helps with personal growth and development. It’s something I’ve kept in mind and it’s led me to spend time in the Arctic, work for a car company in Japan, join the United Nations in Asia and Europe, and even earn my Masters degree while living and working in Bangkok.

One of the best parts of going to the University of Victoria was the relaxing and welcoming atmosphere.
One of the best parts of going to the University of Victoria was the relaxing and welcoming atmosphere.

I was interested and had the opportunity to go to University. Is it the place that will help you find a job after? Not really. It’s called ‘higher education’ after all. Yes, having a university degree opens doors, but it shouldn’t be the main purpose of going to secure a job afterwards. A lot of people try to finish as fast as they can… after 4 years and then what? Work? My advice is to embrace the culture and environment for as long as you think you can or need to… it’s a great place to explore who you are, meet people with different ideas, and learn things. It’s a big jump from high school to university in terms of life experience so what’s the rush of getting it over with?

Where's Waldo... um... where's Vincent in this photo taken at Ueno station during the cherry blossom season in Tokyo.
Where’s Waldo… um… where’s Vincent? Taken at Ueno station during the cherry blossom season in Tokyo.

There’s no perfect way of doing things in life. I’ve learned that the hard way. It was interesting to see the student’s faces when I told them that it took me seven years to finish my undergraduate degree, which included dropping out of university. Burn out is a part of life and that’s ok. It’s an opportunity to learn from and experience these kind of challenges in life. I was fed up with university and so I decided to take time off… and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Not only did I realize the trials and tribulations of a working life, but I learned that I wanted to do more and see the world… which led me to taking a couple years off to live and work in the Arctic and Japan. Again… I would have never expected that coming out of high school.

Making the world a more peaceful, stable, and healthy place requires a mix of people, cultures and skill sets... as long as you're into working with others and believe in partnerships and collaboration.
Making the world a more peaceful, stable, safer, and healthier place requires a mix of people, cultures and skill sets… as long as you’re willing to work with others and believe in partnerships and collaboration.

Relationships are as important as the stuff you learn from books. So while the UN is famously known for “global citizenship”, making the world a more peaceful, stable, safer and healthier place also requires patience, understanding, and acceptance. Book smarts helps you understand the world, but it’s relationships that helps to change it. While I got my foot in the door with the UN with academics and life experiences, it’s the relationships that I’ve nurtured that has helped me continue working on and staying connected with global issues.

Priorities change your life and life changes your priorities.
Priorities change your life and life changes your priorities.

Life’s a journey. Having set plans and ideas about what to do with life is great, but you also have to be ready for those unexpected twists and turns. There will be times when you feel in control, and other times when things just feel out of control. Priorities change in life and it’s important to grow and adjust with them.

So what does it mean to be a “global citizen”? It isn’t about how much one has traveled, but, rather, their perspective, outlook, and curiosity in understanding the world around them, whether it’s in one’s own community or in some village in a developing country. That means being open to exploration, discovery, learning, and empathy… and using those experiences to grow as a person and to give back to society in a meaningful way.

What is Miriam currently wearing?

One day I got a phone call from a former workmate asking if I’d be interested in taking photos for her fashion blog. I was kind of blown away because most of my photography had been just a personal hobby and passion. Of course I tried to do something more with it a couple of years ago with my 2013 photo project and book without thinking too much about where it would go – it was just fun to do! While I’ve only sold a couple of books (so far), what was more rewarding was to realize that by getting other people involved with project encouraged someone else to follow their passion.

Miriam, one of the models in the November theme, started her fashion blog called ‘Currently Wearing – Chic with a positive attitude‘ which has been hugely popular within the Swiss fashion world and she even has a large and dedicated following on Instagram.

This ethical outfit now on Currently Wearing (direct link in bio). Hat and jumpsuit via @amafillech

A photo posted by Miri Ramp (@currently_wearing) on

While most of my photo gear is a mix of digital and film rangefinders and SLRs, I was glad to test out Miriam and her husband’s gear (the regular photographer) even if it was only for 15 minutes. I don’t own a Nikon so it was a pleasure to shoot with their Nikon D3200 and especially fun was taking the AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1-1.8G lens for a spin. I used my favorite shooting mode on these DSLRs which is Aperature Priority where I can choose my aperture setting (blurry backgrounds anyone?) while the camera picks up on the shutter speed.




If you’re interested in mix high-street fashion with luxury and vintage accessories from Swiss and African designers that’s unique, or as Miriam calls it “Afropean”, check out

OCHA hosts UN Designers Group in Geneva

A few months back, I wrote about how Geneva is a melting pot of communication professionals with plenty of active groups meeting to exchange ideas, challenges, and solutions to a constantly evolving field of work. I’m proud that ITU brought together the UN (graphic) designers group late last year with an inaugural meeting in November. Among the UN participants, it seemed that OCHA was ahead of the curve in integrating design into their work and so we were asked to host the second meeting. In May, we were finally able to get our butts in gear to host the meeting. While the first meeting was informal and over lunch, this time around lunch was still on the table, but we also wanted to put a little bit more structure and decided to focus on a key element of how design is used in OCHA’s work, particularly in times of emergencies. This usually means turning lots and lots of data and information from natural or complex disasters into easily accessible and understandable formats that can be used for advocacy, awareness-raising, planning and decision-making.


We explained how design is integrated into the humanitarian response process and how more and more visual design and communication is becoming an area in which other technicians (i.e. information managers and communication generalists) need to understand and be involved in despite the lack of knowledge and know-how. The basic idea is that there’s now so much information that comes through in times of disasters and emergency, it’s hard to make sense of it all and for it to tell a story that can help people understand the severity of the situation or to use this information to make the best decisions possible.


Not only is timing, data-reliability and access a challenge, but so is the issue of standardization and consistency. This means being able to do quick designs based on templates and standards because different people get involve in the design process at difference times during an emergency. But this also has an impact on the branding and consistent communication by the organization. One of the main challenges is to ensure that products meet a certain standard to ensure that an organization’s ‘brand’ is upheld and that people can trust the source of information because, in addition to the quality of the content, the visual identity and look/feel is also what provides value to the reader/user.

Thanks to the OCHA team for a great presentation, and to all the ones who attended the second lunch / meeting!

Posted by UN Geneva Graphic Design Community on Friday, May 22, 2015

There’s also always the constant challenge of “making things pretty”, which is what most people think of designers in this field, vs. “making things useful” – why would you take a 20-page document and turn it into something “pretty” only to have people read it… does that mean if it wasn’t pretty then people wouldn’t read it – what does that say about the document? An interesting discussion point around this was the fact that designers are always asked to help on ‘formatting’ which is actually different for ‘designing’ something. If you’re interested on the influence design (not formatting) has on our lives, “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman is a must read…

There is no need to sacrifice beauty for usability or, for that matter, usability for beauty.

The most interesting part of the meeting was still over lunch where we talked about how people got into design (a lot of people didn’t come strictly from a design education), the challenges/stigma designers face in and outside of the office, and how visual communication is now part of ‘mainstream’ communication and what that means for designers. Like the Facebook page to get info on the next meeting and to stay in touch with the group and get news about design stuff.


Animated gifs are more expressive than static images

Photography is a lot of fun especially now when we have so many options to capture images whether its with a phone, camera, laptop, etc. Once in a while it does get a bit monotonous especially when I’m bored of taking static images. So I’ve been experimenting with creating animated gifs. It’s not all that new, but it is a lot of fun to bring a bunch of images to life.

While I’ve tried this with only a couple of images after a visit to the Olympic museum, I thought I’d give it a try with a lot more images after a photo shoot at work. This time each of the below animations contain approximately 60 images. The trick with an animated gif is that the more the images, the larger the file size so I’ve kept the gif small to reduce the loading/downloading time. Every image has it’s own distinct character, but when shown in a series they express more than just one image and gives a sense of time…



The whole process is really easy to do with Photoshop and the best instructions I’ve found to do it is here:

Pamplona: the centre of infographics and pintxos

Last month I was in Pamplona, Spain where the world-famous running of the bulls takes place. While the bull running doesn’t show up until mid-July, the city becomes host to Malofiej, an infographics world gathering, in March. It wasn’t a surprise that infographics weren’t the first thing on the tip of people’s tongues when I arrived. Instead it was pintxos, the local name of the bite-size Spanish snacks that are commonly known as tapas. Yet, what I found was that there were a lot of similarities between infographics and pintxos and was happy to share my thoughts when Visualoop asked if I could be a guest blogger.

I had heard of and visited the popular website that started out on Tumblr in 2010. Since then Visualoop evolved into its own digital environment and is a place that is dedicated to anything and all things visual and related to data visualization.

We try to bring together experts from fields such as information design, cartography or visual journalism, with students and others interested in expanding their knowledge about data visualization.

What I didn’t realize was that its now run out of Brazil by a very charismatic and friendly Portuguese guy named Tiago. He was quite the busy bee during the conference – networking with participants, blogging everyday, and setting up interviews with people. Here he is with the very talented and respected illustrator Adolfo Arranz at Malofiej23.

Talking with @visualoop at #23malofiej

A photo posted by Adolfo Arranz (@adolfux) on

Here’s how I see the link between infographics and pintxos/tapas:

  • Pintxos are popular because it comes down to a simple idea. The clarity and simplicity of an idea is also what can make an infographic great in communicating information visually.
  • What makes (some) pintxos taste great is the ingredients and how they’re used. This goes the same for infographics – the basic building blocks and ingredients are data and information.
  • Pintxos taste much better when shared with others. Infographic design isn’t (or shouldn’t) be an individual activity, but one where ideas and interests can be shared.

Read the full post on Visualoop and also have a look around as there’s plenty to see especially if you like infographics… no pintxos unfortunately!

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 –

2014 was a blur


1548 – that’s the year La Paz, Bolivia was founded by Spanish conquistadors and the exact number of photos I took in 2014. Over 1500 photos in a year using mostly digital cameras isn’t much, but I’ve been more picky this past year (i.e. a lot more black and white film) and probably had other things on my mind, like becoming a dad. Even if the year was a blur, it wasn’t because of all the traveling I did – the only time I got on a plane in 2014 was for a weekend trip to London. Here’s a gallery of photos which I do every year on Flickr – click on the arrows to move through the photos.

I’m still not totally convinced about the quality of photos from my mobile phone, but I’m getting the hang of it and post some once in a while on Instagram.