Terraforming Singapore: Is the future made of sand? by Kontinentalist

When it comes to sand mining, the Singapore government is often closed to scrutiny. As a result, it is often cast as a villain, guzzling sand from its neighbours while it grows bigger through reclamation. There are also very few reliable global databases that track the sand trade, enabling unethical and exploitative behaviours. With a team of 13 people, we managed to tell a compelling data story on sand and land, bringing to life a narrative largesse against this culture of secrecy and paucity of data.

Our story comprised deep research, data collection, analysis and contextualisation, interviews, design and wireframing, illustrations, animation, and bespoke code, creating a unique, beautifully presented story with a strong narrative, calling for accountability while acknowledging the slightly sci-fi and dystopian feel of land reclamation.

There are two key visualisations in the piece.

The first is an interactive map of all land reclamation projects in Singapore—from 1822 to the future. This has never been made before, and has the potential to be used beyond the story to further the discourse on land reclamation.

The visualisation encoded three levels of data: it illustrated the locations of reclamation projects with further details upon click; it showed the changes to Singapore’s borders over the years; and gave readers a summary of 5 main phases of reclamation.

To make it, we had to stitch together data from four different maps, each analysing different periods, and produced in different formats: a printed book map (1975-2015), a pdf policy document (2021 to beyond), satellite images (2021-2023) and geospatial data in an electoral map (2020). We had to georeference and manually trace the shapes needed, making decisions about water bodies and other details that may have been omitted, accounting for discrepancies in borders, and also cross-reference each project with newspaper reports and archives.

The second is a large, scroll-driven interactive illustration, which presents the hidden costs of reclamation to Singapore. The reader experiences the section as if through binoculars, unravelling like a Chinese scroll painting. This involved breaking down an animated video frame by frame which was triggered by the user’s scroll.

We created a screen reader-friendly version of this visualisation, offering a different experience, like that of a children’s storybook–an accessible experience that stands on its own creatively.

The story incorporates a map showing the changing landscapes of Southeast Asia due to sand mining, and quotes from individuals that add heart and form a cacophony of diverse voices around the issue. There is also a “choose your own adventure” element where readers can choose to read the global perspective (Chapter 2) or a local perspective (Chapter 3), inviting them to consider their positionality.

Bearing an evocative design, the story has been well-received for its nuanced take–away from foreign media’s default of reducing Singapore to a villain hungry for land and power. Ultimately, it changes Singapore’s sand story to a more human one, offering a way forward.

This story was part of a global project, Beneath The Sands, organised by Environmental Reporting Collective.

  • Credits
    Author / Nabilah Said Code / Siti Aishah Azmansah, Qijin Tay Data visualisation and design / Bianchi Dy, Leong Man Wei, Munirah Mansoor, Nabilah Said, Zafirah Zein Design / Munirah Mansoor Editors / Loh Peiying, Gwyneth Cheng Illustrations and animation / Griselda Gabriele Research / Leong Man Wei, Heleena Panicker Editorial consultant / Lee Han Shih
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