How well do you know Malaysia’s capital city? Though Kuala Lumpur is barely over a century old, she’s grown into many secrets and idiosyncrasies that Malaysians tend to take for granted. In the Secret Atlas Of Greater Kuala Lumpur, author Cha-Ly Koh tries to untangle these myths and misconceptions the best way she knows how: through data science.
As the CEO of propertypricetag.com, a portal that provides transacted data on Malaysia’s housing market, she believes such information could offer an objective look at why the city grows in a certain way. “Data for property investment is viewed as an orang atas (highbrow) thing. But if it could reach the average person, the information would empower all of us to better choose where to live in the city,” she says.
She points out that the book isn’t meant to focus on property prices but the trends they represent. For example, if property value near cemeteries is 8% lower than similar property elsewhere, the takeaway is not the lower price but what it says about Malaysians’ superstitious nature.
“In this book, we’re trying to show the quirky behaviours of KL-ites. KL is a very interesting city, we short-change ourselves when comparing it with others, as we have so much diversity in everything from food to places of worship,” Koh says.
The 34-year-old, who trained in city planning at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute Of Technology in the US, works with big data to analyse property trends. However, Secret Atlas offers more than mere real estate data. The 88-page book features maps on a litany of topics that range from mushrooming cafe culture and public transportation myths to the elevation and age of neighbourhoods and where the worst traffic jams and noise pollution are.
“My favourite map is the one on public transport, from its vivid colours to how counter-intuitive the findings were,” reveals Koh at a recent interview.
She assumed that once announcements were made about MRT routes, house prices would shoot up immediately along those routes. Instead, prices only rose once people started using the public transport, while some landed properties near MRT lines actually went down in price, as owners worried there would be more hassle from people parking indiscriminately around their neighbourhood to use the MRT.
Another myth busted is that Malaysians prefer malls over parks. Her research instead found that proximity to parks has an equally positive impact on house prices as does proximity to shopping malls. “We were careful not to make these common, silver bullet assumptions on causality or say ‘this and that make house prices go up or down’,” she says, adding that the maps are meant to let people come to their own conclusions.
For foodies, the must read would be the nasi lemak versus char kway teow map, which tracks which neighbourhoods have more halal restaurants. To accomplish this, Koh’s team scanned online restaurant listing sites like OpenRice.com and Zomato.com to check posted menus, while other menus could be determined by semantics – “It’s fairly obvious that Kedai Kopi 88 would be a Chinese kopitiam and Kedai Al-Rashid would be a Mamak shop.”
“People feel it’s hard to trace whether a neighbourhood is Malay, Chinese, or Indian, but you can tell based on what people eat. Even if you can hide your taxes, you can’t hide what you consume!” she jokes.
However, Koh does not believe Greater KL to be segmented even if each community has its own strong cultural values. Take Puchong, for example; most people would assume it is a largely Chinese neighbourhood – yet the odds of finding typically Malay nasi lemak versus Chinese favourite char kway teow there is 50/50. There isn’t a preponderance of char kway teow, as you might assume, Koh explains.
She says segmentation comes down more to how one sets one’s boundaries, whether on a street level, in a shoplot area or a township. While cafes or kopitiams might tend to flock to the same street, once a search is zoomed out to the township as a whole, the choice of food becomes heterogenous.
As a book on maps, defining boundaries was a big question Koh’s team needed to answer. Malaysia’s cities have layer upon layer of different boundaries: from state, voting, and municipality lines to police districts.
“We sliced areas by postcode, which worked fairly well. Boundaries are also often defined by highways, the same way a river might have been a natural partition long ago,” she says, giving the example of how Seputih is practically a different neighbourhood from Mid Valley after being separated by Jalan Syed Putra.
Asked about how the team defined the borders of Greater KL, Koh admits that featuring the entirety of the Klang Valley was not practical, forcing the team to leave out border areas like Klang and Kajang.
“Klang is huge, almost half the Klang Valley is Klang, but the city is quite wide, so we couldn’t fit everything. I call it Greater KL, that’s the denser area, while the parts left out are further, newer, and have less transaction data,” she explains. Another hurdle was processing mountains of data into something that would be more interesting to the general public than a graph or series of tables.
“Finding how to make it interesting and which colours to use was the biggest challenge. Of the six months working on the book – from conception to print – two-and-a-half months were spent doing the graphics,” Koh says, attributing the brilliant result to illustrator Goh Pei Yee. Though data is becoming increasingly available – the transaction data on property purchases used by the book is on sale via the National Property Information Centre – much Government data isn’t “clean”, meaning it needs to be sorted and filtered to make sense.
Since being founded in 2014, propertypricetag.com has developed ways to deal with such data. Koh reveals that the team has written computer programs to automate the process of “bucketing info” (ie, categorising data) while disregarding outliers and anomalies.
“When we started, we had 70% accuracy on bucketing, and now we’re at 89% accuracy for landed property and around 95% for high-rises,” she says, lighting up as she explains the technical nitty-gritty behind the maps.
Asked why she chose to publish the results as a book when data collection is a live, ongoing event, Koh explains that the graphics in the book are meant to provide a snapshot of KL, and that the trends they reveal are not likely to go stale soon.
“Everything is fluid, but some things like our love of roti canai for breakfast, that won’t die fast. Hipster cafes might come and go but people will keep going to cafes. When looking at data, we’re interpreting trends and looking at behaviour,” she says.
Koh believes behaviour takes decades to change, giving the example of how e-hailing services have prompted more people to ride share but have still not driven people to sell their cars en masse.
Ever hopeful, she has faith that behaviour can change and that access to such data will spark the conversations necessary in the future development of the Klang Valley. “That’s what I’m passionate about – no good policy can come without data.”
Secret Atlas Of Greater Kuala Lumpur is published by Think City and is available at major bookstores nationwide.