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.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe… making data-backed decisions


Counting is one of the basic things we do when we make decisions. Do I need to buy one or two apples?  How many pairs of pants do I want? The ability to make a judgement is backed by both what we know and don’t know. Expand this to grander decisions like how to build cities, improve traffic flows, where to send medicine, etc., then information and data, like linking it to location, clusters, and population density, to support decisions starts to get interesting.

Data can be anything – from the miles you log on your bike to work or the number of times you buy milk a week – and if diligent enough it can be captured by hand, like writing down your routines in a calendar, or using a device, like a GPS or a phone App. And once this data is structured and standardized around some common variables (i.e. location, occurrence, frequency, user), it becomes an important piece of information in how we can make better (or worse) decisions.

For example, Trulia, a website to help visitors find housing in the US, has not only put together where and how much you can find a house or apartment in a particular city in the US, but you can also compare the place with crime rates, school locations, things to do, and even the risk of earthquakes or floods. It’s not meant to scare but to give visitors the information they need to make a decision as to where they want to live.

This concept of using data to support decisions isn’t new. We’ve collected data in various forms, such as market research, surveys, focus groups, etc., for years. The only difference is that with technology and tools for analysis, we can not only get a better representation of a situation, but also capture a lot more data since we’re producing much more using our computer and mobile phones. It’s no surprise that the job of a Data Officer, or in advertising heavyweight Ogilvy’s case a Chief Data Officer, is becoming a valuable asset in business and any work that wants to use data to make better decisions.

In the end, it isn’t just about crunching numbers, but about how we interpret it to help us make decisions. More information and data isn’t the only answer. It’s understanding the data… or as Twitter blogged about recently:

Something else to remember: Who are you talking to? How engaged are they? Do they follow or retweet you? Without context and interpretation, numbers are just numbers.


Google Earth, Maps, GPS tracks and geotagged photos

Google Earth is an amazing program that brings the world to you. It’s also an amazing tool that also puts you in the driving seat of geography! Not entirely a Geographic Information System (which most normal people don’t need in any case), it does make it easy for you to interpret and “map” your own life. You can put pins where you’ve been, and add lines and shapes to mark spaces and areas. An advanced feature even allows you to see historic satellite images on the same place! If you’re someone who owns or uses a GPS, this is also a program to see all your info in a pretty slick display. Then there’s Google Maps – the online map for everyone and for (pretty much) everywhere!

I wanted to see how I could use Google Earth to track two hikes we did in Chamonix, France and then share the route and photos online with my friends and family. Luckily I recently bought a Canon S100 which has a built in GPS to tag photos which helped a lot in automating the whole process. Check out the two maps below:

View Chamonix – Aiguilette in a larger map

View Chamonix – Brevent in a larger map

So what’s the verdict? It’s a little difficult to mash-up the GPS locations, tracks, and photos all together. Event though Adobe Lightroom, the program I use to manage my photos, has a way to view your geotagged photos it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to automatically share them online. Of course, mobile phone technology and other online programs are available to do this (i.e. Flickr, Picasa, etc.) – I think the Canon S100 even has a way to track the whole route even without taking photos.

Since I’m a Geography geek at heart, it was still a lot of fun to experiment and a great way to store and share the memories.  Also, knowing how to use a GPS while hiking or in unpopulated places with little mobile reception is always a good skill to have! I’ll probably find an easier way to do this in the future, but for the moment it’ll do – have you done this before? Add a comment and let me know!

October 13th is the International Day for Disaster Reduction

One of the things I’m doing at work is preparing for the International Day for Disaster Reduction on October 13th. This is the day when government, international organizations, and communities celebrate and promote reducing disasters. In most cases, “disasters” are labeled this way because it has an impact on human society. It’s kind of like saying, does a falling tree make a sound if no one is around to hear it? This is the thing with “disasters”, if there isn’t anyone around, can we still call it a disaster? For example, if the 2004 tsunami hit unpopulated areas, would it have been a “disaster” or would we have chalked it up to a natural and uncontrollable event (i.e. earthquake)?

So the International Day for Disaster Reduction is to have everyone recognized that there is something we can do about “disasters”. This year’s theme is to get cities, especially ones that are exposed to earthquakes, storms/hurricanes, floods, drought, and climate change, to prepare and plan better to reduce the affect of these physical and atmospheric hazards. There’s a big emphasis on improving land zoning policies and designing urban developments and plans that can improve disaster response or limit its impacts. If you want to know more about what’s happening for this Day, visit the UNISDR International Day for Disaster Reduction webpage. If you want to know more about what cities are planning to do about disasters, visit the Making Cities Resilient Campaign.

I’ve worked in both situations – before and after a disaster. Of course the aftermath brings in a lot of money and aid because of the shock and awe following a disaster. But if we really want to make a difference, money and aid should be put towards making sure that cities and communities are prepared and have plans in place to limit disaster damage (in deaths, injured, infrastructure destruction and economic collapse). It’s really exciting and a adrenaline rush to be helping after a disaster, providing humanitarian relief and aid. But at some point I’m wondering if we’re only applying a band-aid solution by focusing too much on the aftermath.

Anyway, here are some photos I’ve taken in the past couple of weeks representing Geneva’s skyline… luckily the weather has been cooperative.

“Hiking” through Manhattan

The "urban hike"

Because we wanted to get out and do some walking – a great way to see NYC by the way – and to meet some new people, Muriel and I joined a walk, or as our guide Dorian told us, an “urban hike”. I’ve been on hikes through the countryside and around islands before, so what would be the big deal in “hiking” through New York’s urban environment, where the pavement is flat and where you can stop anytime for a smoothie. But I think all of us on the tour (only 4 of us made it up at 730am on a Saturday morning) underestimated the pain – we hiked from Times Square, up along the Upper West Side, crossing Harlem and Spanish Harlem in the north, down the Upper East Side, further down Lower Eastside and then to Battery Park, finally going back up to Tribeca… we almost made it back to Times Square, but by that time we were sitting down an enjoying a well-deserved meal when we decided it was better to call it a day. We started at 730am and we didn’t finish until around 3pm – other than a couple of brief breaks, we were walking for about 8 hours!

Day 4 (#GISDay) – It's all about the data!

Timor-Leste Census 2010

More and more people keep attending the afternoon seminars… including today’s presentation by the National Statistics Directorate of Timor-Leste. One of the key things in this 10-year old country is to get a better understanding about its population and what are the challenges to its growth. Timor-Leste will be conducting its national census next year in July 2010.

GIS and mapping hand-outs

Interest is growing for the event, but it’s too bad that the event is only for one week. There needs to be more done in terms of getting the government, universities/schools, and the international community more aware of GIS and mapping and how everyone can benefit from it – hopefully all the material we have available will get around and get people interested. It’s all about collecting and analyzing data… poor data = poor analysis = poor planning/development… GIS and maps can help visualize this.

Day 3 (#GISDay) – Timor-Leste event is half-way through

UN GIS presentation

There’s 3 days left to With maps, we build the future of Timor-Leste at Casa Europa. I’ll try to get more pictures up of the different things that are going on for the week-long event. After three days, there’s been plenty of positive response from the event – a lot of people didn’t realize that there was so much mapping and GIS work going on in Tmor-Leste.


There was a presentation on Day 3 with the United Nations showcasing what GIS can do for society. It was informative and well-attended by both expats and Timorese. A lot of questions were asked regarding how the UN can be more supportive in training or raising awareness about GIS and its related technologies to help the Timorese people/government. The current mandate of the UNMIT GIS Unit is only to support the UN mission and agencies, but if there was a request for more outreach and training by the government or schools/universities, there might be some potential for this kind of activities.

Day 2 (#GISDay) – Kids, military, uni students come for a visit

Kids at GIS event

With maps, we build the future of Timor-Leste keeps going strong at Casa Europa. Day 2 was as popular as the first day. This time around there was a class field trip from the Dili International School who came for a visit – as you can see they were very interested in the 1:50000 floor map. Also, the military came to look around since they contributed a couple of 2+ meter long maps to the event. It’s great to see that the event is drawing people from all over.

Casa Europa

One of the highlights was the presentations in the afternoon which was mainly attended by Timorese… the first was given by a staff member at the Ministry of Agriculture. The surprising thing was that it was a women who really knew what she was talking about – collecting climate data from weather stations setup around the country. Given that Timor-Leste has its issues with Education, and the challenges for women to have a higher education, the sight of a very pregnant staff member presenting was a pleasant surprise.

ALGIS presentation

The second half of the presentation was given by our good friend Osorio, who is probably one of the only experts in remote sensing in the country – he knew his stuff! One idea that came up was to have more presentations like these in the academic setting to encourage Timorese to learn more about how GIS and maps can help their country develop – maybe a special lecture once a month at the university could be a good start!

Day 1 (#GISDay) – Success in Timor-Leste!

Coinciding with GIS Day, the first day of the GIS/mapping event in Timor-Leste (With maps, we build the future of Timor-Leste) was a success. Given this type of event is the first of its kind in the country, the opening day went smoothly… although there were some bumps along the way as I expected.

But overall the turnout was great… in the morning, we had lots of people out from the Geographic Information Group (GIG) showing their support. Even a group of women, like from “Sex and the City”, came around because they wanted to show their friend, who was celebrating her birthday, a good time and to visit the “new” exhibition at Casa Europa. The highlights of the day was a visit by the Deputy Special Rep. for the UN Secretary General (my boss) and the Deputy Head of the European Commission. Even the US Ambassador sneaked in for a peak, who when I asked how he knew about the event told me, “Well, you invited me!”

US Ambassador taking a look at the large floor map

Ho Mapa, Ita Harii Futuru Timor-Leste (#GISDay)

GIG event

I’m part of the Timor-Leste Geographic Information Group (GIG). For the past few months we’ve been planning to organize an event to raise awareness about mapping and geographic information systems (GIS) work that is going on in Timor-Leste. There isn’t much information about GIS and mapping in Timor. So this event hopes to educate the public and get people to start thinking about using data, information, maps, and geography to help them plan, develop, and help Timor-Leste’s growth.

It’s funny how so many projects that are ongoing or in the planning stages don’t think about collecting, compiling, and analyzing data for their work. There’s this term that is being used a lot these days… it’s “evidence-based…” Everywhere people use it, yet you’d think that all projects would naturally be using data and information to keep track of progress or challenges in their own project. I’m baffled that projects get to a certain stage and then they start using words like “evidence-based monitoring and evaluation”… shouldn’t monitoring and evaluating something be based on evidence (i.e. numbers, stats, information, etc.)???

Anyway, one aspect I’m hoping this event will encourage people to think about is that information, data, statistics, etc. is vital in all aspects of work… and the ability to visualize this (i.e. with maps, graphs, design) helps people to interpret and potentially understand it better to help them plan and/or evaluate their work so that they can improve and make things better.

Timor-Leste is still growing in this area, but given that the country is in it’s early stages of development, if the GIG through this event can encourage people to start thinking about collecting and maintaining data and information, and mapping it out, perhaps we’ll be able to help Timor-Leste move a little bit more ahead.

Here’s the press release for the event:

(a Tetun and Portuguese version can be found at


<Dili, Timor-Leste, 9 November 2009> – The Geographic Information Group (GIG) in Timor-Leste announces that it will be organizing a unique week-long event about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and mapping. The event will take place from 18-25 November 2009 at Casa Europa from 8am-5pm (excluding the weekend).

This event will coincide with National Geographic Society’s Geography Awareness Week (15-21 November) in the United States and GIS Day (18 November) – a global event to raise awareness of GIS technology and the important contributions it makes in the fields of science, technology, information, and development. Ho Mapa Ita Harii Futuru Timor-Leste provides an opportunity for those interested to learn about geographic information and GIS/mapping activities in Timor-Leste.

This one-week event will include both a permanent map exhibition open to the public and seminars/presentations about GIS and mapping technologies in action within Timor-Leste. Contributors to this event include the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economy and Development, IOM, UNDP, UNMIT, UNICEF and BELUN, JICA, ERDAS and ESRI.

A GIS is a computer-based mapping tool that takes information from a database about a location, such as streets, buildings, water features, and terrain, and turns it into visual layers. The ability to see geographic features on a map gives users a better understanding of a particular location, enabling planners, analysts, and others to make informed decisions about their communities.

For more information contact Toru Nagayama, Technical Advisor for Mapping to the Ministry of Justice (email:, mobile: +670-746-8016)


About the Geographic Information Group (GIG)

The Geographic Information Group (GIG) is comprised of government, UN agencies, and NGOs who are actively using geographic information, GIS, and mapping to support Timor-Leste’s planning, development and humanitarian response.

The GIG is a forum for exchanging views and ideas about policy and technology issues within the GIS field, with the participation of experts from government and international organizations. This forum is currently being co-chaired by National Directorate for Land, Property and Cadastral Services (DNTPSC) of the Ministry of Justice and the UN. One of the GIG’s key functions is to facilitate knowledge and skills transfer between these organizations so that local government bodies can start developing GIS and spatial data infrastructure within Timor-Leste.