Visualising stories around COVID-19

Conversations with Data: #49

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As the world confronts the outbreak of COVID-19, there's never been a more important time for journalists to tell visual stories with accuracy and clarity. In this week's Conversations with Data podcast, we spoke with Amanda Makulec about how to create understandable charts, graphs, and maps that better explain complexity in these uncertain times. As data lead at Excella and operations director at the Data Visualization Society, she explains why responsible design has never been more important for data storytellers and how not to mislead your audience.

You can listen to our entire 30-minute podcast with Amanda on Spotify, SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with her below.

What we asked

Tell us about your work in data visualisation.

I am currently the data visualisation lead at Excella, a Washington D.C.-based technology consulting firm that serves clients from federal agencies to nonprofits. I lead data visualisation teams and create data visualisations as part of that work. I also volunteer as the operations director for the Data Visualization Society. We are a nonprofit organisation that was founded in February 2019. In under a year, we reached almost 12,000 new members from over 130 countries around the world. Becoming a member is free.

What's happening with the Data Visualization Society? Anything new?

The Data Visualization Society is launching a new matchmaking initiative where we pair our members with health and civil society organisations doing vital work right around COVID-19. We’ve already seen numerous impactful visualisations shared by public health practitioners and media partners, but we’ve also seen some that might have benefited from some expert consultation.

We believe we can help as a community by collaborating with public health organisations, researchers, local communities, and others through data visualisation. We had more than 475 people sign up to volunteer in the first few days of launching the programme. We also had a group of initial organisations submit requests for support.

What responsibility do designers working with data have to the general public at this time?

That's a big question. There's just so much information coming at us, both in the form of articles, dashboards, and maps that tell us about how challenging it could be for our hospital system here in the US. And I think it's our responsibility as data visualisation designers to think about the emotional response that what we create will evoke in people.

That's why the data visualisation community talks a lot about the challenges of using bright, bold colours like red on maps and how they evoke a certain response of panic. How are we embedding a call to action in what we create? How are we helping people feel empowered to make local individual decisions that can really make a difference in the current environment? It's not just public health professionals and clinicians reading this. Instead, the entire world is looking at this. We have to be mindful of how our charts might be misinterpreted.

What good examples have you seen out there covering the pandemic?

John Burn-Murdoch's charts for the Financial Times are updated daily with input from experts. Those visualisations explain what the different curves look like for different countries. With small annotations, they point to what these countries have done to help flatten those curves or change the trajectory of that curve. Providing context that helps us understand the numbers and why they're going a certain direction is key.

The Washington Post's flatten the curve article by Harry Stevens belongs in a top-five hall of fame for being an illustration of data that helped inspire an entire country, and really the world, to make certain choices that are really hard to make around limiting your activity. We've seen the power of data visualisation help people understand complex concepts.

Why do case fatality rates for COVID-19 matter and how should we visualise them?

Case fatality rates are a curious measure when we're talking about a broad interest in understanding what's happening in the world with the disease. And we've seen a lot of people calculating a case fatality rate by doing the simple math by taking the number of deaths and dividing it by the number of cases. And that sounds like delightfully simple algebra, but the challenge is that it's very hard to calculate an accurate, generalisable case fatality rate for this disease when the data we have is so uncertain.

We're better off making estimations for smaller groups or smaller subpopulations. And I've been really proud to see some of the different news outlets who have pivoted from reporting single point fixed case fatality rates over to reporting ranges for a given country or a given demographic group.

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What do you think COVID-19 has taught us?

We've demonstrated the value of engaging and collaborating with subject matter experts so that it's not just designers or journalists operating in isolation. The value of finding sources and validating what we're making shouldn't be underestimated. The best visualisations that people engage with are accurate and created as a collaboration, not just one person sitting behind a computer screen.

We still need to think about the ways in which we are packaging and communicating numbers for the general public that are easier to understand, but still represent data correctly, accurately, and effectively. My hope is that we all have helped the world become a bit more data literate and that we've had bigger conversations about the ethics and choices that we make in terms of what we plot and what we don't.

Long Reads on

The Washington Post's most-read article visualised how pandemics like COVID-19 can spread, and why social distancing matters. In our interview with author and graphics reporter Harry Stevens, he explains how he used data, design, and code to communicate the concept of social distancing to help flatten the curve.

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We're looking for authors for our Long Read section. Whether you're a seasoned data journalist, a student, or a data visualisation expert, we're interested in sharing your expertise. Not sure what to pitch? Have a read of our guidelines. Get in touch with our data editor, Tara Kelly, at [email protected].

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Our next conversation

With the COVID-19 still spreading, and a third of the world in lockdown, many journalists are looking for ways to explain what is happening. To ensure we bring you the most useful information on visual storytelling during this time, we'll be talking with Associate Professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles from the University of Auckland in our next podcast. As a microbiologist with a passion for infectious disease, she's also an experienced science communicator, podcaster, and blogger. She'll share with us her advice on how we can best cover this global pandemic with accuracy and clarity.

As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here.


Tara from the EJC Data team,

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