Part I: The Bishamon Project

A view of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant from Ukedo harbor in Namie City, about 7 km (4 miles) north of the plant


It has now been more than a year since the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March 11, 2011, but many people around the world may not be aware that there is an on-going crisis that continues to plague the country.

As one may recall, this was a triple catastrophe, starting with the 9.0 Earthquake, followed by a Tsunami, and then the cataclysmic nuclear crisis in two Fukushima Nuclear Plants along the northeastern coast of Japan.  The result of the nuclear disaster was the immediate evacuation of all citizens within a 20km radius from the nuclear plant.  To this day, not a single resident has been allowed to resume life within these confines, and will most likely not be able to return in the near future, if at all.

Namie City, inside the 20km evacuation zone, is eerily empty in the early morning rush hour (taken 12/11/2011)

Communities that were ravaged by the tsunami are slowly recovering through reconstruction efforts, but the 20km evacuation zone has become a no-man’s land, a barricaded, desolate space that has been largely left untouched and uninhabited since March 11. All entry roads into the evacuation zone are heavily barricaded and guarded; access is only allowed for those with government approved permits, and even then, entering personnel are encouraged to wear white overalls and gas masks.  Venturing inside the confines of the nuclear zone reveals that there are more cows inhabiting the area than humans.  Cows and other animals were not subject to the evacuation procedures.

Cows are seen roaming around the restricted evacuation zone

While many are contemplating next steps and strategies to revive and resurrect communities surrounding the 20km zone, a lingering question continues to trouble the populace:

How safe is it to live in these areas?

Part I:  The Bishamon Project

Professor Naito from Niigata University leads the Bishamon Project Team

In an effort to answer this question, a research team from Niigata University lead by Professor Makoto Naito, has started a project called “Bishamon”.  The word “Bishamon” is an acronym for BIo-Safety Hybrid Automatic MONitor, but also symbolic of Japanese folklore and mythology, representing one of the Seven God’s of Fortune, where Bishamon is the God of Warriors, assigned to be the guardian of places, appropriately named to protect the the people in Fukushima. The mission of the Bishamon team is simple:  to educate the citizens living around the nuclear plant on the amount of radiation that exists within their communities by providing accurate and timely data.  The team has elected to monitor areas with high concentration of school routes to address the safety of children as its top priority.

Members of the Bishamon team measuring radiation levels in Namie City, inside the 20km evacuation zone

Data Collection

What is paramount to the project is the accuracy of the radiation data being collected.  While there are other projects that rely on crowd sourced data, the Bishamon team insists on a highly regulated, tested and proven set of recording equipment and methodologies.  In order to accomplish this goal, members of the team have concocted a “hybrid” device that combines a radiation monitor, a GPS device, and a laptop equipped with a custom made application that tracks the radiation levels along with geolocational information in real time.

The Hybrid monitoring device

The hybrid device is mounted on a tray that can then be loaded onto a vehicle.  Once turned on, the monitoring application can be configured to record radiation levels by a given time interval.  For example, it can record a radiation reading every second, allowing a vehicle to drive through a community and gather accurate readings along its route by simply turning on the hybrid device.  The laptop then provides real time charts and maps as shown below.

Custom GIS application that shows radiation readings and geolocational information

The hybrid device can also be carried manually, allowing the team to walk through targeted areas such as school grounds to record readings in places that vehicles cannot enter.

Bishamon team members walk around an elementary school using the portable hybrid device to record radiation levels

The Bishamon Team began the data collection process in the summer of 2011 by employing these two methods of acquisition (by vehicle and by foot), focusing on routes that children use to commute to school.  At the time that this report was written, the data collection process was conducted over multiple trips to various communities both in and out of the 20km evacuation zone, starting on September 2, 2011 to February 12, 2012.  All in all, more than 700,000 readings were collected over this time period.

Data Visualization

Once the data is collected, maps are generated to provide a visual representation where  each radiation reading location is assigned a color value based on the strength of the radiation.   Many factors were considered in regards to the data categorization assigned to the readings.  The categorization affects the colorization of the points on the map, and the breakpoints determine which colors are assigned to the different ranges of radiation.  These provide an immediate visual interpretation of the data collected.  Red, which is typically associated with elements of danger (and usually elicits strong emotional reactions), was chosen to represent the areas of highest radiation. Green, which is typical for elements of safety, was chosen to represent areas of lower radiation levels. The map below shows one of the generated maps for the region around Ota Elementary School, located just outside the 20km evacuation zone, showing high levels of radiation (over 1 mSV/hour).

Radiation map of the area around Ota Elementary School in Minami Soma City

In contrast, the map generated for the area around Omika Elementary School, also just outside the 20km evacuation zone, shows low levels of radiation.

Radiation map for Omika Elementary School

These maps were then provided to the local governments to publish to the public.  An example of this can be seen in the Minami Soma City website where they have listed a series of maps created by the Bishamon team.

Part 1: A journey through Tohoku Japan


On December 20th, 2011, three researchers from three different universities took off on a road trip that would take them through some of the areas that suffered the most devastation caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

I first met Yugo Shobugawa at Harvard University back in May 2011.  He came to watch my presentation on “Social Media and GIS: Mapping Revolutions, History, and Catastrophe” where I spoke about the role that social media played in the days following the earthquake.  Yugo is a physician, an expert in clinical epidemiology, and is currently an assistant professor at Niigata University.  But he is also quite the GIS practitioner, fluent in using spatial analysis to provide amazing insights on how space is directly correlated with the outbreak, diffusion and control of various epidemics.  We bonded immediately over mutual excitements over things like temporal mapping, spatial regressions, and why our 4 year old children never listen to us.  But I think the real connection happened when we both acknowledged our feelings of despair and helplessness of being Japanese, and yet not being in Japan during the earthquake.  For many Japanese nationals living abroad, experiencing the earthquake from a distance was excruciating.  It is this sense of despair that drove many of us to pour our hearts and souls into the recovery effort, in any small way that we could, remotely.

And so it was that when I finally had the opportunity to visit family and friends in Japan in December, 2012, I also decided that I had to see the effects of the disaster with my own eyes.  I had been in a similar predicament in the past, having toured the town of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, shortly after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.  This trip left a huge imprint, witnessing an entire community in ruins, standing on ground zero of it all, rendered speechless and heartbroken for people I had no connections to.  With much trepidation, I understood that going to Sendai would be, in many ways, different.  Different in a sense that these were my people that had suffered, that I had a deep cultural and spiritual bond with the land that was affected.

So on the morning of December 20th, Yugo and I met up at the Shinkansen platform in Tokyo, and rode together towards Sendai. It was only the fourth time we had met, having first met at Harvard, then at UCLA, another time in San Diego, and now on a bullet train) , but it felt like we had been friends since kindergarden.  It was on this bullet train ride that Yugo told me about the Bishamon Project that he was working on.  The Bishamon team was working with local governments around the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, monitoring radiation levels in surrounding communities, focusing on commuting routes around schools.  He told me that the data they were collecting revealed what many feared, that radiation levels were still very high, at exposure levels that were dangerous to live in for prolonged periods of time.

As we rode along, I realized that all of this was interconnected in a strange way: our journey towards Sendai and Miyagi being one part of the whole, with the ongoing situation in the Fukushima Nuclear plant being the other.  Upon arrival in Sendai, we were met by a pleasant, effusive and thankfully talkative Dr. Mimura, who was currently working on his PhD studies in Tohoku University.  He had volunteered an entire day to take both of us around strategic spots in Sendai and Miyagi, all along providing excellent insight and stories that we would otherwise have no access to.  While there were many, many places he took us to (too many to recount here), I would like to focus on just a few highlights of the day.

Ishinomaki City

Our first stop was Ishinomaki City.  Driving around the city, we were initially struck by how life seemed to be going on as normal.  A vibrant community, densely populated neighborhoods, and the usual hussle bustle you expect from any mid-sized city.  But it soon dawned upon me that some things were far from normal.  The traffic lights not working, the visible damage in many buildings, the newly paved sidewalks, but most of all, it was the sign of boarded up businesses that were apparent in many areas of the city.  But it was not until we reached the Medical Center that the true impact of the disaster was felt.


Ishinomaki City Emergency Room 石巻市夜間急患センター


While many areas around the city were showing signs of recovery, this medical center was left mostly untouched since March 11th.  It felt as if time had stopped, as if we were here just moments after the earthquake.  Venturing inside this structure revealed something I can only describe as a scene from an apocalyptic movie.  The entire first floor of this building was inundated, without a single window still intact.

Kadowaki Elementary School

Driving along, we saw what remained of Kadowaki Elementary School.  Fires had caused much of the damage following the earthquake, leaving the facade charred, the structure devoid of any sense of livelihood.
Turning around, you would notice that all areas around this school were completely devastated.  What remained were outlines of buildings and occasional structures that had somehow survived the onslaught of the waves.
Looking along the horizon, I saw what appeared to be small mountains, but I was struck by the uniformity of these mounds.  I soon realized that these “mountains” were debris mounds.
And then, what I saw down the road left me searching for words.
To be continued…

Christmas at Okawa Elementary School

Okawa Elementary School

Okawa Elementary School, nine months after the Tsunami

Words cannot begin to describe the sadness that envelopes the story about Okawa Elementary School. Of the 108 children in attendance, 74 were lost due to the Tsunami that swept the school and much of Ishinomaki City on March 11, 2011. I had the opportunity to visit the location of this tragedy on December 20, some nine months later. It was a dreary, overcast day, with snowflakes falling from the sky in a slow swirling motion. It is said that the day of the earthquake had a similar weather, with temperatures hovering around freezing levels. As I took my camera out, I could hardly keep my hands on the shutter, as the cold wind cut deep into my exposed fingers. The drizzling snow added to the ambiance, as if to remind us of the symbology of the place where we stood. The entire school was surrounded by empty fields that showed remnants of the disaster. Squashed cars swept and left abandoned in the middle of rice paddies, mounds and mounds of cleaned up debris, an occasionally empty house that miraculously survived the waves, bulldozers continuing the cleanup effort, smoke rising from place to place signaling the burning of collected trash. It is clear that Ishinomaki City is but a shell of its former self, the devastation so vast that parts of the city may never fully recover. The school itself was wedged between the bank of a river and a small hill on its backside.

According to my guide, the earthquake manual for the school dictated that the children evacuate the building, and congregate in the open area outside the building.  This is the area that is sandwiched by the river and the hill.  The school teachers kept the children in this playground, instructing them to await their parents who were on their way to pick them up.  This is when the first warnings of the tsunami came.  They headed towards higher ground, but were too late, swept by the incoming waves.  The few who survived did so by reaching higher ground, only to have to endure the freezing temperatures for hours before being rescued.

The hill behind Okawa Elementary School

The hill behind Okawa Elementary School

As I looked at the area that my guide referred to as the initial evacuation zone, I pointed at the hills located just 30 meters behind, and asked, “so, if they had simply run to those hills and gone to higher ground, would they have survived?”. I already knew the answer before he gave his one word response, “yes”.

What is left standing in Okawa Elementary School is the shell of the main campus, a brick structure whose main circular structure has remained intact. In front of the structure is a memorial, fully adorned with fresh flowers, fruit and drinks. In front of the memorial are two poster boards.

Two poster boards in front of the memorial

Two poster boards in front of the memorial

The first one reads:

The two of you had always wanted to go to the Sendai Illumination Pageant. I am so sorry, I guess I will never be able to take you after all. Every year you had said “let’s go!”. If I had known this was going to happen, I should have made the time and taken you there. But isn’t the illumination from the christmas tree the volunteers put together beautiful? It is called “Okawa Elementary School’s Illumination Pageant”. Isn’t it wonderful. Do enjoy it with your friends in Heaven. Your mother.

The first poster board

The first poster board

This is when I noticed the solar panels located next to the memorial.

Solar panels next to the memorial

Solar panels next to the memorial

These panels were powering the illumination for the christmas tree that stood in the exposed wall behind it:

The christmas tree

The christmas tree

The second poster board, apparently a note written by the students, reads:

Please look after us
Little by little, little by little,
We will move forward

TEDx UCLA: Can Twitter Save Lives?

Back in June 18th, 2011, I had the good fortune to be invited to speak at the inaugural TEDx event at UCLA.  I took the opportunity to present about the post disaster situation in Japan and spoke of the potential that social media and locational technologies hold for future crisis management and awareness.

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Japan Earthquake: Emotions at a glance

What was the country “feeling” after the earthquake?  Was it engulfed in sorrow?  Anger?  Fear?  What effect did the hundreds of aftershocks have on the populace?  In an attempt to answer these questions, a social media analysis can provide a window  into the sentiment that was prevalent at each phase of recovery by visualizing each emotion group played out over time.  The charts below stacks each emotion group, one on top of another.  These was generated using the Protovis Javascript API.  Clicking into any of the emotion charts will allow interaction with their values over time:

(view full screen)

In concordance with previous analyses, the most noticeable observations come in the “fear” emotion on April 7th.  Looking at the “Earthquake magnitude” chart, one can see that the second largest aftershock occurs on that day, bringing meaning to the notion that “fear” was a predominant emotional reaction to an already stressed nation at the time.  One can also depict that while the April 7th 7.1 magnitude earthquake was the largest aftershock since the big one on March 11th, that the country was consistently rocked throughout, averaging more than 10 earthquakes a day.  However, as the earthquake chart reveals, the number of quakes had tailored off considerably over time, perhaps causing it to expose even more shock value to the “big” 7.1 quake, at a time when the people were starting to feel a level of normality.