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

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