Better thinking through technology

What tsunami fatalities teach us about mixed signals

I want you to go take a look at a map:
This map fascinates, because the data contained within includes two disconnected signals that are nonetheless interesting. The map charts international fatality totals for each country as a result of the tsunami that followed the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake off of the coast of Indonesia.

A funny thing quickly crosses your mind when you look at the map: why were so many people from Canada or Germany killed in this event? Of course, first off, the map is log scale, so you have to be acutely aware that fatalities in the outlying countries are being overstated in the visual representation. 1-9 Russians may have been killed, and that's tiny in comparison to the 100,000+ folks who were killed in Indonesia, near the epicenter.

But, all of that said, the data provides us information regarding two very distinct signals.

The first signal is very obvious: direct proximity of the countries in question to the epicenter. With the exception of Somalia, the countries that suffered the most fatalities in the event were right next to the earthquake. To the extent that a nearby country avoided fatalities, such as Australia, it was simply because the country's population center was on the opposite side of the continent from where the waves broke. Same goes for Bangladesh, where the neighbors bore the brunt of the fatalities and the wave simply broke according to geography, likely saving the country from an insane humanitarian disaster.

The second signal is the one that interests me most, since obviously the idea that standing next to a tsunami when it happens might be fatal isn't particular actionable other than perhaps informing you to run like a motherfucker should find yourself in such a situation.

The second signal is an economic signal that appears in the down scale portion of the map.

Look at the countries that didn't suffer fatalities. Bolivia, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, etc.

The wealthier a country was on an international scale, the more fatalities it suffered. Also, more open countries such as Germany, suffered fatalities while closed countries like Saudi Arabia did not.

Obviously, the event tells us something about the relative poverty of the countries involved. Essentially, by tracking their citizens' travel toward a place where they might be killed by a massive event like a tsunami, we can easily measure those countries' index of economic and social success and freedom. For example, the Swiss suffered an appalling number of deaths relative to their non-proximity to the event itself.

I believe there's something clever lurking in this sort of data. I think we can produce a better picture of global economic freedom, trade and social improvement by simply tracking who dies during events like the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

Let me propose a simple question that pops out at me from this map: why did Turkey not experience any deaths from this quake?

Turkey in 2004 was working toward European integration. Most of the well-integrated parts of Europe experienced deaths in the quake. Hell, even many of the less integrated parts of Europe, such as the Ukraine, also experienced deaths.

How did Turkey manage to not plop a single unfortunate citizen in the wrong place at the wrong time when this quake hit? Seriously, not even a single export-import guy who just went to southern Myanmar to buy scrap metal from scuttled ships? Not a single perverted 20-year-old rich kid trying to get his dick wet in Thailand?


Turkey had a population of 68 million people in 2004. The folks who live in Turkey, while not precisely living on easy street like the Norwegians, still have a high enough HDI score that you'd expect somebody out of the pile to find their way to SEA and get themselves killed.

Across the map of Europe, within this data, you end up with a map of the level of human development, economic freedom and social freedom.

That hypothesis is probably even more obvious if you look at the map of South America. No Bolivians were getting on a plane to go die in this event. Paraguay? Good luck. Peru? Nope.

Colombia? Yup. Argentina? Yup.

Whether a country, if it was located away from the epicenter, suffered a fatality in the Indian Ocean earthquake seems to provide a fairly strong indicator of whether that country has been properly integrated into the international system to the extent that its citizens would be wealthy and free enough to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And it begs an important question: does this data presage the closing up of Turkish society as it lurched closer to European integration?

Why did Hungary experience no deaths? Does this data show that Hungary's regression toward fascism and dictatorship was more present in 2004 than we want to admit?

Was Colombia's reemergence following the end of the drug wars baked into this data?

To my eye, there's something very interesting lurking at the bottom of this data. I think there's a clever way to quantify economic and social freedom on a global scale by simply tallying up all of the bodies collected from travelers being in the wrong place at the wrong time.