Visualizing Fukushima: Determining the grounds for effective visualization of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster

Lee, Kwanghoon. 2019. Visualizing Fukushima: Determining the grounds for effective visualization of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Disaster. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

The vast amount of data and information now available in every aspect of modern society, otherwise called big data, has become a necessary resource to understand the trends of complex modern society. They have been largely controlled by the government and a few select major global companies and hence, have formed political hegemony. However, data and information is of course a meaningful resource which can change the world when it is open to the public and used appropriately.

To use the resource appropriately, Information visualization is an essential tool since it enables the finding of valuable trends amongst the large volume of data set and information. However, visualizations often lead to misunderstandings due to the various kinds of data and information and different possible interpretations depending on the diverse background of the people that are considering these visualizations. Moreover, these results are likely to have a negative impact on the world. Therefore, it is necessary to study the understanding of the visualization according to the background of the viewer.

In this context, this research investigated how visualizations of the Fukushima disaster in online newspapers are understood by people from various backgrounds such as their nationality, age, etc. The reason for studying the Fukushima disaster is that the characteristics of data, information, and visualization surrounding this one event are very similar to those of the contemporary world. This disaster needs to be understood with a wide range of data and information due to its multidimensional aspects such as politics, economy, society, environment, technology, etc. and so visualization is an essential tool to assist in that process. In addition, there is also the political hegemony of the Japanese government, and non-governmental organizations and the general public surrounding data and information. Still further, there are many problems which can be solved by using data and information as well (i.e. radiation contamination, present situations of evacuees, distribution of food from Fukushima, etc.). This one incident is therefore useful as a reflection of society in general, and from which one can understand the use of data and visualization in macroscopic modern society.

The reason for studying the visualization of online newspapers is that its main users are the general public. In addition, the most traditional and basic media format among the various visualizations’ types in online newspapers is useful for sharing and spreading. In fact, the visualizations based on such type have been widely and actively shared through online media in relation to the Fukushima disaster. In particular, studying how visualization is understood by the general public from various backgrounds is one of the most fundamental and significant areas in this field. This is because visualization has been used as a kind of universal language which transcends borders and boundaries across many people. Furthermore, the general public is the most direct subject that can change the world by understanding the given information and data through visualization. It is, therefore, important to look through their eyes and study their visualization use and understanding.

This study has collected many visual instances which have represented the data and information of the Fukushima event in order to analyze their components and to explore their understanding-related effects. The collected cases comprise of 236 visualizations used in online newspapers from 25 countries. These are countries where the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl and Fukushima has been detected by the IAEA and the CTBTO.
This study devised a framework to analyze the collected visual instances as well as to explore the principles in which understanding of visualization works. The framework is composed of several categories including a) source of data and information; b) main topic and purpose of visualization; and c) representation methods such as representational keys, types of visualization, metonymical and metaphorical expression. The framework was used not only in the analysis of collected visualization instances but also in the overall evaluation of understanding effects.

This study constructed visual materials by selecting predominant visualization forms in accordance with the result of the analysis. To conduct the interview, this study used semi-structured interview as the main methodology. This is because it was necessary to listen to the reasons for the different interpretations depending on the diverse backgrounds of the viewers. Thus, I designed a questionnaire composed of visual materials and open-ended questions which asked as to the understanding effects of visualization. The open-ended questions related to the reliabilities of the data sources of visualization, the level of understanding and the emotional impact of visualization, as well as the degrees of influence and change of perspective by those factors. The 113 participants who I encountered by random sampling were residents of Seoul, a major capital city which is close to the disaster area and in which many disaster-related issues have been often reported.

The results of the interviews were analyzed according to categories based on the participants' various backgrounds, i.e. region; age; whether or not the event still matters to them and their reasons for taking this position; and their existing perspectives on this event. In addition, by using the designed framework, this research also explored the characteristics of the visual syntax in the visualizations which enabled such effects and changes.

As a result of the study, there were various understanding effects according to various backgrounds and the categories of those. Put another way, the diverse backgrounds resulted in: various degrees of reliability on the source of data and information; diverse level of understanding of the components in visual syntax; various degrees of emotional stimulation which is a subsequent effect of understanding; and changes of perspectives. Nevertheless such effects were higher among the participants who were close to the impact of the catastrophe; whose nationalities were represented as influenced regions in visualizations; and those who had evident interests or concerns and the reasons for those.

Finally, this study provided guidelines for the field of the practice of visualization. In addition, it showed the possibility that visualization can work in a sociopolitical movement; and that the findings of this research can work seamlessly in combination with the principles of visualizations based on advanced technologies. Above all, this research is valuable in that it discovered the performance process and the consequences of visualization, which enabled these possibilities by investigating the understanding resulting from visualization according to the various backgrounds of many different people.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


Infographics, Information visualization, Data visualization, Journalism Media, Understanding of visualization, Effective visualization, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



31 May 2019

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

17 Jun 2019 10:35

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:14


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