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.

Visualization isn’t just about fancy charts

Continuing from my last post on how data isn’t everything, visualization isn’t just about finding cool ways to show off data. “Visualization”, which seems to be a hot topic at the moment, is more than that. While it might be a buzzword that refers to showcasing data and statistics in a interesting way, I think “visualizing” something goes beyond that and should refer to how visuals, images, graphics, etc. help us understand any topic better and educate or inform people to know and do something with this information.


A quick scan of Wikipedia shows that there’s a bunch of terms “visualization” can refer to, including: mental image, information graphics, perception, and thinking, highlighting that it’s an evolving field. Taking this idea further, there’s a difference in ‘information’ design vs. ‘graphic’ design. Whatever the tools or channels, the purpose of designing information is about making information accessible to the people who will need it and use it to make important decisions, as mentioned in Joel Katz’s book Designing Information. Graphic design, on the other hand, is more about making things look “pretty” or for aesthetic beauty. Both are naturally link yet have different purposes.

Visualization can then be like the signage in the photo above, the illustration below educating readers on the process of the Olympics Slopestyle, creating a chart out of Legos to show the impact of licensing, or allowing users of Google Ngram to find the commonality of keywords in publications over a given time period.


Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 2.44.06 PM

One of the most natural thing we do when we enter into the world is to ‘see’


The phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ started in the early 1900’s from people working in journalism and advertising. Nowadays, the startling amount of ‘words’ we’re producing with the plethora of ‘pictures’ can amount to information overload. Yet, every image, photo, picture or visualization has a story to tell and that story is a personal homage to both the scene in the picture and the person creating the image. While most people learn to read, write, and do arithmetic, one of the most natural and first thing we do when we enter into the world is to ‘see’.

Back in 2012, I entered the One Life photo competition/project setup by the See.Me creative community to highlight and provide exposure to lovers of photography. It was a great chance to contribute some of my photos to the project, gain a bit of exposure by joining the community and have a bit of fun. Added to this was that it was the first time I saw social media being used as a way to vote. At the end of it all, my photos would join a collection of great photos online that have a story to tell. I was so excited when I came back from Christmas holidays to find the long overdue book with select photographs from the competition waiting in the mailbox… and the best part was that one of my photos from a Greece trip in 2009 was featured! The photo along with my yearly highlight collections are available on Flickr – which reminds me I need to start working on a set for 2013.



When we pay attention, every action in the universe creates data


We process data everyday – through all of our five (or six?) senses. From hearing the crunching of cocoa beans, smelling the aroma released when the beans are heated, seeing the chocolate being formed, feeling the texture as it enters our mouth, to tasting it as it melts in our mouth, our brain has to deal with an almost limitless amount of information which eventually translates into thoughts, decisions, and emotions. This “data” might seem minimal, but the amount of information processed by our brain is BIG…

… here’s an insight into how BIG… The European Commission is currently funding a project to build a supercomputer that will simulate the brain. So far, the project is attempting to simulate a rat’s brain functions. According to this Wired article, the project’s first Blue Gene supercomputer was robust enough to simulate a single neocortical column in a rat. FYI, a rat’s brain has an equivalent of about 100,000 columns. The grand vision for the project is to simulate an entire brain’s worth of neurons and will require huge amounts of computing power to make the simulation possible – at least 100 petabytes of memory to run computations (that’s equal to all of Facebook’s data as of 1 February 2012) and an exaflop to process it (that’s about one million trillion calculations per second).

The research into what many are calling “Big Data” is a growing and fascinating field. Not only is it just about understanding how our brain works (and how to treat neurological illnesses), it’s about tapping into and understanding the world we live in today. With increasingly advanced technology on collecting, processes, and analyzing data, the hope is that we can better address problems, see patterns, and find solutions.

Moving in parallel to accessing Big Data is the trend to be able to visualize all this external information so that our brains can process and make sense of it all. Ironically, our brain seems to do very well at processing what it gets from our senses, but when we have to find ways to understand externalized information, like trends in how often a country uses electricity, we need to shape it in a way that our brains can understand. The inaugural edition of Big Data has an excellent article and interview On Visualization by Dino Citraro, co-founder of Periscopic, a socially-conscious data visualization firm that helps companies and organizations promote information transparency and public awareness.

Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts:

By revealing patterns in data, we create meaning, we welcome connections, we evoke the encoding channels of symmetry and color, and we tap the visceral mechanics of memory.

Visualization is merely another tool of communication and it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the only pathway to truth.

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.

Silhouettes reveal more than you know…

Silhouettes are an amazing thing. Not only does it reveal the shape, curves, and intricacies of shape and form, but it’s also amazing how our brains interpret them and can make sense of them. There’s no better example of this than when we talk about symbols and icons. These graphical representations help us understand and find meaning in the world we live in. You’ve probably even been part of creating them – I bet you’ve drawn a stickman or two in your lifetime! Typically in black and white, these symbols simplify the complexities of life to communicate its essence and help us find our way through the world.

One of the first places I’ve found standard symbols is at AIGA, the professional association for design, which produced a series of icons used for transportation purposes. Ever been in an airport and seen signs to give directions or the toilets? Then you’ve probably seen one of these symbols. The complete set of 50 passenger/pedestrian symbols developed by AIGA are available in EPS and GIF formats…And the good thing about it is they are free to use. Check them out on the AIGA website.

The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), an organization I worked with previously on infographics and map design, also just released a set of 500 humanitarian symbols to use for maps, graphics, reports, etc… all for free. Started in 2008, the project has developed to create more standardized symbology to help humanitarians on the ground in disaster and emergency situations quickly communicate information in a visual way. Akiko Harayama, Head of OCHA’s Advocacy and Visual Media Unit (AVMU) said:

“After the first set of symbols was released in 2008, we started to receive requests for new symbols from our humanitarian partners, including UN agencies and NGOs in the field around the world. In the midst of a crisis response, relief workers would not have the time or design skills to create usable symbols. Clearly presenting and visualizing this information is the next step and hopefully leads to more effective and timely humanitarian assistance.”

Finally, there’s the Noun Project which I just discovered that will make life a hell of a lot easier when trying to search for symbols and icons. There mission is to ‘share, celebrate, and enhance the world’s visual language’.

The Noun Project collects, organizes and adds to the highly recognizable symbols that form the world’s visual language, so we may share them in a fun and meaningful way.

Facebook would be boring without photos.

Visual storytelling is something we’ve been doing for centuries (and longer). And the fact that we all now have ways to do this with the internet, cameras, and phones makes it all that much easier to connect and bring people closer together by sharing experiences and memories. “5 ways to impress your audience with visual content” is a good summary of why and how visuals are just an intuitive way we can communicate. While it’s aimed at businesses and marketers, it’s a nice insight into what makes us tick – Facebook would be pretty boring without photos, don’t you think?

Anyway, if you like visual storytelling, why not check out this set of photos I put together for the See.Me photo competition, an international photo competition about photos that tells stories. If you like them, click on “Collect Me” at the top right of the page – and if you have photos that tells stories, why not enter yourself?

Just to end off, here are a few photos from a trip to Amsterdam last weekend – starting with a stereotypical photo (above) of cyclists freely riding around town and ending with a look at a famous beer brewery!

Sleep With Me - our quaint B&B with a fusion of French and Dutch tastes -
Narrow and tall facades of buildings plays tricks on your eyes.
You can't miss this sign and all the Amsterdam souvenirs with the same name!
Sunset looking towards the main train station - can you see the Chinese restaurant/hotel?
Was a bit shocked to see this in the middle of the city - that just shows how much I'm NOT a beer drinker

To see or not to see?

I can’t believe it’s been almost a month since I last wrote in this blog. Time sure does fly, especially when we head into the holiday season with Christmas just around the corner. Maybe one of my new year’s resolutions should be to write more often… It seems friends and family, as well as some other people, liked my recent article about how Crisis Mapping and new technologies can be used for reducing disaster risk – well at least that’s what Facebook is telling me. Anyway, it’s always nice to get positive feedback and encouragement, given that writing is such a personal thing and people are pretty free to tear things apart.

Are we (becoming) a visual society? The photos in this post taken during this year’s Fete des Lumieres in Lyon, France illustrate that we are (and have been) a very visual society. Given that we now live in a age where screens have become second nature, do we need (more) images and visuals to stimulate the way we feed on information? The CrisisMappers conference that sparked the idea for the above article I wrote provided a good insight into this issue.

Fete des Lumeries - Cathedral Saint Jean

From the surface, CrisisMappers ICCM2011, the 3rd INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE of CRISIS MAPPERS, seemed to be full of visuals and the way we can now collect and share information in real-time through our mobile phones, the internet, iPads, etc… But at the same time, I went to one of the side events where a group of 50+ people  talked about how to better communicate the visuals – going beyond just dots on a map. So even with all this data and info that we can generate and collect, it seems we still have problems sifting through it all to tell a story. Do we need people who can both understand the technical bits of making things visual AND who can understand how all the visual and textual bits fit together to tell a story that makes sense to the world? Personally, I think it’s a good sign that we can’t just rely on making things “pretty”, and that we can’t just rely on the fact that the “facts/content speaks for itself”. It means that people working in the communication industry still have a lot of value – just as long as people are willing to evolve and change with the times, and understand the content and communication needs of the general public.

Fete des Lumieres - Place Louis Pradel leaves us wide-eyed

All this talk of “visuals” makes me think about people who are visually impaired or blind – how does our current technologies help them stay connected? But that’ll have to be another post!



Life’s a whirlwind tour… time to make a change.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything in this blog. I think it’s time for a change to coincide with the change in what my blog’s going to be about. If you look at the sidebar of my blog, I’ve been writing seriously in this blog since 2006. But most of it’s been about my travels and life living abroad. I guess it’s a bit of a change now since I don’t expect to be moving around too much in the future (i.e. yikes! settling down… I must be getting old).

The fun part will be to start writing about what interests me – like information graphics, how we can turn information and raw data into things that are interesting for people so they can understand the world better, and hopefully make better decisions/choices. So that’s going to be the change… of course, I’ll keep putting up photos from my observations around me, but I just thought I’d take a more interesting and focused approach to blogging (although I’ve heard blogging is dead).

To start off with, check out how journalism and media are changing the way they build a story/news and how all the data we’re generating, whether via the internet or not, is being used by graphic designers and artists to help us understand our world around us. The way we communicate now is a lot different than the photo above of a telephone on the steps of the Vallorbe train station in Switzerland – it was like traveling back in time.

Journalism in the Age of Data –