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

Tutorial: Building Cartograms

The US presidential elections has popularized “cartograms”, a type of map visualization that makes it easier to distinguish areas of higher numeric values (like higher vote counts) by exploding tiny polygons (like coastal areas in the East Coast) to better reflect their perceived values.  For example, take a look at this map of the 2008 presidential elections:

Source: University of Michigan

Red states reflect higher vote counts for John McCain, and blue states reflect higher vote counts for Barack Obama.  Now, when you “cartogram-ize” this map, you get the following result:

These cartograms have been around for quite a while, and are often used in GIS presentations to emphasize the point on how easy it is to create a false visual impression when authoring thematic maps on geographies that have a high contrast between the large and small polygons. This is especially true in US based maps, where coastal areas with high population counts are represented by tiny polygons.

I have often wondered how these cartograms are created, and was told by a graduate student at UCLA that there is now a java tool called ScapeToad that generates cartograms. Moreover, ScapeToad provides a free downloadable wizard-based tool that converts any shapefile into a cartogram!  It is insanely cool.  Here is a tutorial on how to use ScapeToad.

Step 1: Download ScapeToad

Go to to download ScapeToad, and run the executable file.

Step 2: Add a layer

Run ScapeGoat, and click on the “Add layer” button, and choose a shapefile to upload. For this example, I chose a USA County shapefile that comes with basic 2000 census data.

Step 3: Create the cartogram

Now click on the “Create cartogram” button, and go through the wizard.  For this example, I chose to create a cartogram based on the attribute for “Hispanic”.

Step 4: Export as Shapefile

Now that you have created a cartogram, you are ready to export it to something usable.  ScapeToad allows you to export to SVG (which you can import into Illustrator), or as a shapefile (which you can import into ArcGIS).  Click on “Export to Shape”, and save the cartogram as a shapefile.  Open ArcGIS and load the shapefile.

When the shapefile is loaded into ArcGIS, it will be drawn in one random color, as this is the default behavior for loading any shapefile in ArcGIS.  Right click on the cartogram layer, and modify the symbology.  I chose to symbolize by:

  • Quantities -> Graduated colors
  • Value: Hispanic
  • Classification: Natural Breaks
  • Classes: 3

Now the cartogram is color coded based on the variable it was cartogramed with: Hispanic.  As a final step, I chose to label the counties that have high values:

US counties with high hispanic population counts (Census 2000)



Posted in GIS

UCLA’s Volunteer Day Live Map

UCLA Volunteer Day's live site

Every year for the past 3 years, UCLA has dedicated a day for community service.  On Volunteer Day, the incoming freshman class embarks to various destinations around Los Angeles to clean, paint, beautify, mentor and engage with the community.

As a technologist in charge of the Volunteer Center website, this day provides an incredible opportunity to utilize social media as a forum to capture the many stories and moments that occur throughout the day.  What other chance does one get to have control over a mass exodus of more than 7000 people all over a city?  How can we build a platform that allows us to capture the stories and deliver them in real time?  How might the volunteers on the ground most effectively submit their stories to a centralized public interface?  The answer was to build an awareness around what we dubbed “The Mobile Campaign“.

The result was a map-based interface that “evolved” throughout the day.  Starting out as an empty map at 7:00am, it gradually populated itself as more and more pictures and videos started flowing in, coming directly from the people on the ground, the volunteers themselves!  While you may not be able to experience the day through its “live” interface, feel free to see the hundreds of photos and video’s that came in from almost 30 different locations:

The technology behind the site was using the following:

  • Google Maps API v3 for the mapping
  • Flickrs API for the photo and video upload and retrieval
  • and lot’s and lot’s of jQuery
Posted in GIS

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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