‘No Time for Anger’ - A Reportage on Fukushima Two Years After the Triple Disaster


By Martina Frantzén, designer at Interactive Things, and Sylke Gruhnwald, data-driven reporter at Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

The date was set and the goal was clear. Two years after the triple catastrophe of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami followed by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster on March 1st,  2011, reporter Marcel Gyr, accompanied by freelance photographer Christoph Bangert and translator Mitsuhiro Shoji, returned to the affected region to cover the latest developments, in a reportage for the Swiss media outlet Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ).

The Ara family, school director Mrs. Tamura, retired taxi driver Mr. Sato and fisherman Mr. Yoshikawa welcomed the trio and shared their experiences. It is their personal stories that we wanted to convey by optimally combining text, photography, video footage – and data. To accomplish this master task, the editorial team at NZZ knew right from the beginning that we needed the support of designers and coders to not only think through the long format of this story but also to implement our joint ideas in the digital environment. Thus, we teamed up with the Zurich based design studio Interactive Things.

During our team's travel to Japan, the rest of us in Zurich kicked-off the reporting on topics such as the number and geo-location of refugees, evacuation zones as well as radiation and its measurement. The reporting was challenging due to the fact that most of the material was only available in Japanese and did not come in most cases in a machine-readable format. The time difference between Japan and Switzerland hampered establishing contact with local administrative staff, university researchers and Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) representatives. Additionally, once we received the data, we not only needed to re-format and ‘interview’ the datasets to discover and explore the story but also to question the data source itself, since the topic of nuclear energy has a vast range of stakeholders, all with their very own opinion. And, indeed, one of our hypotheses simply proved wrong during the research process.

We received data sets from the prefecture of Fukushima on the number of refugees and their current location for the years 2011 and 2012. We imagined that since this was a nuclear catastrophe people would flee from the region and wish to be as far away as possible. Yet, the numbers from the prefecture of Fukushima backed by researchers at the University of Gunma showed that the reality was quite different. The majority of people who fled actually stayed within the region of Fukushima. The visualisation below illustrates this finding.


Number of refugees in the region of Fukushima for the years 2011 and 2012

Another important topic to cover was the measurement of radiation. For the data visualization explaining micro- and millisievert – the measuring unit for radiation levels, we used a grid of small animated GIFs. Each square represents the radiation level through small moving particles. The denser the particles are, the more radiation they symbolise. By using this visualisation technique, the user can start to get a feel of what these abstract values mean.


Visual comparison of radiation levels through animated GIFs


Heat map of radiation levels in Japan after the Fukushima disaster

The implementation of all the design details was done at the very end. An interactive web publication resulted from Fireworks mock-ups combined with text, photography and video footage. We focused on the reading experience and enhancing aspects of storytelling by using interactive features. The publication has a responsive UI which enables the user to read the content on various devices such as a smartphones, desktop browsers and tablets. The look and feel of the publication should convey a certain calmness and let the reader take his or her time when browsing it.

This work brought us both praise and criticism. But for us at NZZ and Interactive Things, it was an exciting journey over ten intense days. Additionally, this reportage led to a cooperation between NZZ and Interactive Things: NZZ Data. NZZ Data combines journalistic skills with design and coding to further support news reporting at the Swiss daily.

Note: If you want to learn more about how the visualisations for this project were made, check out the article written by the designers behind the project at datavisualization.ch.