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Volunteers translate quake data into visuals

by Rick Martin

Over the past week we’ve seen a stark contrast in how the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been reported. “Panic” read the New York Daily News. “Get out of Tokyo Now” said The Sun. One expects that of tabloids, yet more credible media also described an “exodus” from Tokyo, neglecting to mention that it was primarily foreign residents who were leaving, many with few ties here who preferred to err on the side of caution. Japanese news was sober in contrast. “Radiation exposure can be dealt with” read The Asahi Shimbun.

So while rescue workers were searching frantically through the rubble for survivors in Tohoku, non-Japanese-speaking residents elsewhere were tasked with searching for accurate news reports that would ease their growing fears.

Jump to Cologne, Germany, where User Experience designer Marian Steinbach was in search of answers: “I think the question not only I am asking is: Is nuclear radiation spreading over the country? But I couldn’t find anything. When I discovered the www.bousai.ne.jp website I found that they offered real-time values.”

The website, a project of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (or MEXT), was publishing radiation measurements from locations around Japan. Steinbach says that the data formats were not machine-readable, so he created a publicly editable Google Spreadsheet and asked other volunteers on Twitter to input radiation data from the bousai website.

“I knew that I could probably come up with an automatic solution later, but this was the easiest way to get something working. It took about a day until there were the maximum of 50 users having the spreadsheet opened in edit mode.” As the saying goes, many hands make light work and that was certainly the case in this crowd-sourced effort.

Later, Steinbach found a way to automatically scrape the MEXT data from the bousai website and offer the radiation data (which updates every 10 minutes) as a download from his site, www.sendung.de. More importantly, he presented it as an accessible and reusable format (i.e., comma separated values, or CSV).

Switch to Norway, where Geir Engdahl, a self-employed mathematician and programmer, picked up where Steinbach left off.

“On the morning of Wednesday, March 16, I was looking for data about the radiation and couldn’t find a place where it was displayed in a clear and sober manner. There was a lot of talk in the media, but not much in terms of actual values, and it was not displayed like a map, which was what I wanted . . . I could not find a map on the MEXT website. From some Google searches, I found Marian Steinbach’s data, which made my job of making the map a lot easier.”

Using Steinbach’s dataset Geir created a Japan Radiation Map over at gebweb.net/japan-radiation-map . The radiation measurement stations are plotted on a Google Map, where you can click the marker to see the most recent reading as well as the change over time plotted on a line graph.

There were difficulties however. Engdahl says that he couldn’t map all the measurement stations at first because he didn’t have their GPS coordinates:

“The station names meant nothing to me, I don’t know Japanese and I haven’t even been to Japan. I put up a Google spreadsheet and called for volunteers to enter the coordinates of the stations, while I slowly worked my way through the most interesting stations using the Japanese map on the MEXT website, which Steinbach had pointed me to at this point. Volunteers added a lot of GPS coordinates in my spreadsheet within 24 hours, so the map now has good coverage in the most interesting locations.”

At the same time in California, Web developer Eron Villarreal turned Steinbach’s dataset into an interactive line graph using the online visualization service Tableau Public ( bit.ly/erongraph ).

“It turns out that earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear power all create a lot of data; but that it’s not always open and accessible,” Simon Rogers, the editor of The Guardian’s Datablog and Datastore, tells The Japan Times. “By crowd-sourcing Japan’s radiation monitoring, Steinbach has turned the official service from a inaccessible snapshot into an accessible and useful historical resource. It means that we can understand what’s going on a whole lot better.”

Back to Japan, where at the very same time IT Services Manager Phillip Mills was graphing an assortment of information on his website, including radiation data published by various prefectural offices.

“The main reason for doing this is to provide a clear visual record of data from sources so people can see now that the radiation levels (which were never harmful in the first place) have decreased over time. A lot of people don’t understand numbers being quoted but showing them a nice graph it makes understanding a lot easier.”

Mills’ work can be found at fleep.com/earthquake .

The fact that members of the public are compelled to repackage government information to make it more easily understood is interesting. It’s clear that government entities, corporations and media organizations could be doing more to help the public understand the figures better. Without an adequate understanding of crucial data in a crisis like this one, rumor and fear will emerge in its place. The media can become speculative, often to the point of irresponsibility, as we saw over the past week. This only compounds public fear and worsens the crisis.

In the interests of transparency, many governments and organizations have begun open-data initiatives, such as data.gov in the United States or data.gov.uk in Britain. The responsibility of keeping the public informed is now more than rolling out narrative-based stories or press releases. It requires the presentation of information in a way that maximizes clarity to serve the public good. And sometimes that requires diving into the numbers and making them readable.

The Institute for Information Design Japan also recognized this need and issued an urgent request for people to help collect and/or produce visualizations. They can be reached at japan@iidj.net.

Thankfully, many of the radiation graphs mentioned above are showing that as we go to press the numbers are dropping, which is a very welcome sign after what’s been a tragic week for this country. With any luck the media will refocus on the tsunami recovery efforts, which is where its attention should be right now.