Visualising Disaster

The devastating effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan have been tragic to watch, as the death toll climbs and the rebuilding begins.

The days since the quake have highlighted how technology continues to change the way we process and react to disasters. News filters out through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and concerned family and friends can search for the missing via Google Person Finder.

Then there are people using online tools to visually represent the scale of the disaster. You’ve probably seen the dramatic before and after satellite images. Now is looking for designers to submit visualisations of the natural disaster.

“We’re interested in both the earthquake and the ensuing wave – in other words, you might focus on either phenomenon or a combination of the two. You may focus solely on the Japan quake, consider the deeper context of quake/wave history, or think about the broader scope of all natural catastrophes.”

The site suggests a range of public data that’s available for mining, and highlights some examples of existing data visualisations.

The NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory released a data visualisation of the estimated size of the tsunami (pictured, and here) – estimating anticpated wave heights as the effects of the earthquake moved across the Pacific Ocean. The highest waves (black) are near the quake epicentre, obviously, becoming lower as they get further away (orange/yellow), and then getting taller again near coastal areas (red).

In another example, designer Isao Matsunami turned to the rescue efforts and plotted the accessibility of roads in affected areas in the days following the disaster. Over a Google Earth map he layered data from Honda cars with “InterNavi” and GPS systems, which tracked where those cars were travelling and at what speed. describes itself as “a community of creative people working to make sense of complex issues through data and design… and a shared space and free resource to help you achieve this goal.” The site helps designers showcase their work and get feedback, see how other designers are working, and access public data. Plus there are regular challenges for data design, like this one.

Closer to home, Libraryhack is looking for ideas for mash-ups and apps using data from Australian and New Zealand libraries. It’s well worth brainstorming some suggestions for the Libraryhack Ideas Competition – there’s a $1000 prize for the best idea. Entries close on April 30. Libraryhack are also running workshops and events – head to the website to find out more.

Have you ever tried making a data visualisation? What kind of data visualisations would you be interested in seeing?

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