Technology & Innovation

Dr. Puripant Ruchikachorn: Understanding Crisis from a Data Visualization Specialist’s Perspective

  • 02 Apr 2020
  • 4942

In crisis situations, what could give us hope more than “confidence”? A sense of confidence can eradicate the doubts and fear that might eventually destroy everything. And even though “truth” may sometimes hurt us, it will also help us see a way out as opposed to unsubstantiated good news and comforting words. Today, Thais need fear in the degree that matches reality so that we are prepared to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis that no one yet knows how it will end. Presenting information in a way that is accurate, precise and easy to understand is essential in helping us to thoroughly understand the current situation which will lead us to encounter, adapt and find a way out together.

Dr. Puripant Ruchikachorn is a lecturer at Chulalongkorn Business School, Chulalongkorn University, Department of Statistics. He also co-founded Boonmee Lab which merges the sciences of data, technology and design to create products and projects that creatively stimulate the curiousity and analytical skills of users and news consumers. Dr. Puripant is an expert on making complex data easier to understand through graphical representation called “Data Visualization”. During this crisis where many sectors still fall short on straightforward and reliable information presentation, how can data visualization become one of the tools that help people understand the situation we are facing more clearly? Let’s hear the answer from this expert. 


What is Data Visualization?
Basically, it is the presentation of data in a graphical format. If we have data, instead of showing it in the form of tables, numbers or words, we communicate it as visual objects. Its key benefit is based on human perception as we can process images rather well and effectively. Images are appealing and interesting. It’s like when we see something beautiful and want to look at it. That’s the benefits of visualization. What we often do is using visualization in communication because images are more interesting and attractive. That makes it easier to draw people to the data and to get our message across. Another type of benefit is that it may not simply be used only to communicate, but also to help us digest some information or reach a conclusion. Sometimes, it’s hard to grasp an idea when we have to take in a lot of data. But if we visualize it first, it’ll help us communicate better with ourselves whether our understanding is right or wrong. Images help us understand better. They don’t have to be beautiful, as long as they can be used to communicate and sharpen our understanding. And that will lead to a final conclusion that can then be communicated to others. 

Will it replace conventional communication methods?
I think it complements rather than substitutes. There already are valuable data but no one has made use of it. For example, many organisations want to implement Digital Transformation by developing Dashboard. It’s like they know that they have certain data but haven’t made use of it. Dashboard is a form of visualization that simultaneously collects and displays various types of data in order to help users to understand critical information and make informed decision. So I think it doesn’t replace anything, but complements the existing methods to make them more effective. Another thing that many people might think will be replaced by visualization is Data Journalism.

The fact is visualization doesn’t take the place of news reporting. News reporting still does its job, but there may be a new format that can communicate on some issues more easily and clearly. The Covid-19 pandemic, for instance. We can obviously write articles about them like usual, but on certain points, visual images make it easier to understand. Good news agencies from Asia such as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post effectively use visual elements to communicate about Covid-19. For example, we can clearly see the increase in patient trend. If we read the data in text format, we might not see the same picture. 


What then is Data Journalism? How does it differ from Data Visualization?
Data Journalism is a way of reporting that is centered on data and then examining such datasets to find issues of interest which may be something we haven’t expected or thought to be an issue before. This reporting skill differs in the sense that, news typically come top-down from the news desks; stories are distributed to reporters to write and then pass on to graphic designers for illustrations. But in Data Journalism, there are more people involved: not only news editors, but also people who can tell stories, people who understand the data and designers. They work together to figure out how to present the information for this news story and do it together at the same time.  

If possible, we’d want all of those skills in one person. But in reality, there’s none yet. On the one hand, the university teaching system doesn’t support any one person to develop such diverse skills. So I think that team collaboration may be better. The main skills for Data Journalism is having a nose for news, understanding the nature of data and having the ability to find out information and know what the information can do as well as its limitation. They may be able to write codes or not. Another area is design and encoding skill, which includes an understanding of aesthetics and limitation of visual outcomes. Such a team should create good work. As for the difference, Data Visualization can be one of the tools for Data Journalism. For example, if we are talking about accidents in Thailand, instead of interviewing road accident experts, we may pull real data and look back for 10 years to find out whether the number of accidents in Thailand has risen or fallen. This may be another way to report news in a new format. And we may visualize the information to make it easier to digest.

Will presenting data in this format make it less opinionated? 
Data Journalism may help make the data less opinionated. However, I must say that data is naturally biased, possibly since the collection process. But Data Journalism will encourage people to think and help us understand whether the data is biased or not. The links to the data sources may be attached or visualization may help us see something we didn’t catch before. We may suspect what is true or not because we get to see more data than what is written in text format. In a way, it’ll lead to more data-driven reporting as people will consider and analyse such news more. Or simply put, it’s harder to insert one’s point of view because, without supporting data, the viewers won’t believe it.

Are there any examples of Data Visualization on the Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand?
The mapping data from private sectors, be it the number of worldwide patient cases or digesting the news into map form and tracking where the patients have been travelling. Such data can be visualized. In terms of data analysis, if we look at the whole map, we can put ourselves in there and see where we are. Are we near anyone infected and how to make precaution? We don’t often see this type of work from the government, but the private sector is quite ready to do it if they have enough data. However, the private sector still doesn’t have much data right now. The press conference by the Ministry of Public Health is delivered in the form of report, text or speech but there’s no information on where each case happens and where the patient has been. This type of data we have to gather by ourselves from various news sources which is not very convenient.



What should be a good example of presenting information in crisis situations?
I think there’re two sides when it comes to personal data. We can clearly see that Asia countries disclose nearly everything. We know where most patients have been, but not their names, of course. On the other hand, we hardly see detailed reports on each case in the Western countries. That’s probably due to our different ideologies. In Asia, we are less concerned about privacy than those in the west. Now that we look into this issue, I think Asia is quite successful in controlling the outbreak. A good example is Singapore. They show very detailed information: who and which situation each patient contracted the virus from and who have contracted it next. But in Thailand, we don’t know much. I think maybe we prioritize on privacy and don’t want to identify the patients. On the other hand, however, it’s possible that the government doesn’t think that the public wants to know and that it’s enough to know what they’re told. This may come down to the difference in expectation. But I think right now, many people probably agree that the information from the government is not enough and the government should try to tell us more.

Do we need to know as much information as Singapore?
I think we should. The government says that Thailand has yet to enter phase 3. But in reality, many people are questioning whether that’s the case. If so, then from whom those patients contracted it. There’s not enough explanation. And did they actually test how everyone contracted the virus? A clear explanation should ease the panic better. Actually, there’re two issues. First, too much information may raise concerns on privacy and bring on panic in some cases. For example, if they say that an infected patient has been to this shop at this time, anyone who has been there at the same time would be worried. Second, the information is too broad. For example, if they don’t reveal where a patient has been but people hear from rumours that an infected person has been to a certain area. That will cause troubles to the whole area instead of any one group. And I think that concealing information is not a good method to control panic. Disclosing it may be much better because people will become less panic.

In this current situation, what critical information are we lacking?
I think basically we need information on each case and regular updates. But we must admit that this is an unexpected emergency. No one has set up a pattern before on how detailed the information should be disclosed. But up to now, we still haven’t received information regularly. We still don’t know who contracted it from whom. Sometimes, there’re reports on the patients’ jobs, sometimes not. That can lead to confusion. Actually, the job information is important. We might want to know which jobs are riskier in order to devise the right policy. And those in the same profession will be able to appropriately handle it.

Will you give some interesting examples of Covid-19 communication that should be followed?
In terms of Data Visualization and Data Journalism, I must hand it to the leading countries in this field such as the US. Big names such as The New York Time and The Washington Post are experts on producing embedded visualization media. They dare to present massive amounts of data that have been digested to make it easier for readers to understand. In Asia, we have South China Morning Post from Hong Kong. And The Straits Times from Singapore has done a great job during the Covid-19 outbreak by visualizing the data of each patient case in Singapore to show whom they contracted the virus from.

How do you make comparison with the reporting in Thailand?
Even though many news media now have dedicated Covid-19 section, one problem we’re facing is Thai media may have never reported about such level of crisis on digital platform. So there’s no time to prepare and it takes quite a while for them to catch up. Looking back at the Tham Luang cave rescue reporting, for instance. At that time, we’d started producing online news but we still weren’t quite ready to report on other angles. Even though we started reporting that story before other countries since it happened in Thailand and we saw the significance of it first, but what we saw on TV was mostly interviews of relevant parties and that’s it. It wasn’t until we saw the coverage by foreign media that we began to understand that there’re other angles to cover the story. For example, the Japanese media presented a simulation of the situation in the cave. That’s how we learnt that it could be done this way. The glitches were our unpreparedness for the volume of coverage and the perspective we should adopt in reporting it.  I think that the local news media are more ready lately because there are foreign competitors. Thai news no longer matters only in our country or our region. If there’s a big story, foreign press will report on it too so we have to be prepared.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example on demonstrating that we can develop a system in preparation for handling other crisis. For example, if we create a website about Covid-19, there’s no reason for not using the same system for drought or PM 2.5. It may be in the same map format and shows where the problems occur, for instance. And I’d like the news media or even the government to know that such system is not a one-off. If we design it well, it can be used many times with the same type of data. As long as the data is of the geographical type, it will be displayed in the same map format. 

Do you think Thais are ready to consume the information in the form of Data Visualization?
I think most of the concerns come from the media who employs us, not the readers. They are worried whether there’s a market for it, just like the saying about how the demand for certain type of TV dramas is what keeps them coming. Actually, we might take it for granted that Thai people want such drama when they in fact want something more thought-provoking. But there’s one thing we must admit, Thais may be less able to watch thought-provoking stuff compared to other countries. It’s not that we’re not as smart, we’re just not used to it. If we get to see it often, we’ll get used to it. There’s no reason that makes Thais unable to read charts. We’re just not used to them. When we see them often, we’ll become more familiar. There’ve been many studies on how countries that use difficult visual language will have tolerance for it. The studies involved an examination of the newspapers in such countries on the level of difficulty of their featured charts. The more difficult the charts, the people in those countries will have more tolerance and make more effort in reading them.

This issue is therefore like chicken and the egg. It’s because we’ve never given people something difficult, so we might have to start doing it. I’ve seen many news media starting to feature more difficult charts. A clear example is from our latest election. Before that, we had hardly seen Thailand map on the front page to show which parties won which districts. But during the previous election, there’re more detailed maps in an easy to understand format. Thailand’s administrative regions were broken down into 6 parts and arranged into the map of Thailand. I’ve received comments regarding whether readers would understand it. But in reality, there’re people who immediately understand it to the point that newspapers can put it on the front page without any concerns.

Story : Wanpen Boonpen  Image : Pira Ditthakorn