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How data visualizations explained coronavirus to the public

by Ben Magnuson March 23, 2020

The spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19, around the world, and the dramatic attempts to contain and mitigate it, have created a need to communicate ever-changing and complex ideas in quick and accessible ways. Science, news and non-profit organizations, as well as enterprising individuals, have found success relying on data visualizations and infographics to make new concepts (such as epidemiology and exponential growth) easy to comprehend. As a sign of their success, many have been shared far and wide on social media.

The Data Strategy team at One North has been curating a list of some of the most effective data visualizations we have come across. Below we highlight a handful of our favorites and discuss why these visualizations convey their point the best.

1). Flatten the curve

Image Source: The Hill


Image Source: Main St. Clinic

Since being shared on Twitter by Siouxsie Wiles on March 8th, the Flatten the Curve mixture of comic and visualization was shared over 25,000 times and translated over multiple languages, communicating a complex concept easily in a matter of seconds. The animation carried forward the work presented on one of the initial Flatten The Curve visualizations created by Anagaha Srikanth.

Though these two visualizations convey the same information, the latter was able to communicate those ideas to a broader audience for some key reasons:

  • In the first graphic, significant “data-ink” is dedicated to small annotations that help explain their narrative, but it may be tough to view on mobile or at a glance.
  • The image is also static, so it doesn’t take advantage of one of our major pre-attentive attributes: motion.
  • It also doesn’t take full advantage of one of our other pre-attentive attributes: color. Instead, one color is used throughout and different patterns help distinguish the curves.

Compare this with the GIF:

  • Significantly less “data-ink” is used on annotations, most are dedicated to the data itself.
  • A “Healthcare Capacity” dotted line is added, which conveys much of the information of The Hill’s annotations re: overrunning our healthcare system.
  • It uses pre-attentive attributes like motion and color well, making these two outcomes distinct and allowing the user to understand this is a “one or the other” scenario.
  • It injects some humor and information with a cartoon graphic breaking down “good” and “bad” behavior to emphasize what will lead to one outcome versus the other.


2). Washington Post – Social Distancing Simulator

Image Source: The Washington Post

The Washington Post published the article above, with simulations of the spread of an invented pandemic they named “Simulitis,” on March 14th. Paul Farhi, a writer at the Washington Post, has since tweeted that “this story is the most-read ever in the history of our website, exceeding such greatest hits as our news story about Trump on the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape.”

What makes this such a compelling simulation?

  • Exponential growth can be a particularly hard concept to fathom. At the time of publishing, many states had yet to see double-digit reports of Coronavirus. This infographic articulates the story of exponential growth, and how one case can quickly become many without social distancing.
  • It was an excellent companion to the “Curve” animations, by showing that as the line slopes up, it is signifying many multiplications of sicknesses, not just a stable base rate.
  • While covering a disturbing and difficult concept, it illustrates the point in an engaging and even entertaining way.


3). Coronavirus Global Cases Monitor Dashboard by Jun Ye

With so much data being published by governments and organizations, many in the data community took to creating dashboards to help organize it all. Dashboards are difficult to pull off. By their very nature, they are often trying to describe more than one story. As such, some were better than others.

Jun Ye’s dashboard (above) stood out to us for its prioritization and clarity.

What we enjoyed:

  • Many dashboards focused on the gross numbers, but that can be difficult to make sense of. Ye’s dashboard provided key context by adding in the daily changes and rates. In the bottom graph, he shows how a country (selected by the user) compares to other benchmark regions, such as Mainland China, South Korea or Italy.
  • It is not “pretty,” but it is prioritized well. Headline numbers were treated like headlines, given prominent spacing and design.

By contrast, Johns Hopkins put together a popular dashboard below that failed to assist users in gaining insights on the progression of the disease.

  • The dashboard is pretty, but it is difficult to focus on any one thing.
  • The totals provided at a global level are difficult to gather meaning from, and the use of a map with circles sized by amount has (unfortunately) become too difficult to grasp the meaning at a local level.


4). Bar Chart Showing Age Discrepancy of Confirmed Cases in Italy vs. South Korea

Sometimes the simplest visualization is the best one. This graph created by Andreas Backhaus showed how many cases countries may be missing if they only test patients with strong symptoms.

What we like:

  • Simple bar charts do a great job of providing a quick context of scale and pointing to outliers.

What we’d change:

  • This graph is misusing color in two ways:
    • Green and Red are not accessible colors for those with color blindness.
    • Red is typically associated with negative performance and green with positive, and that’s actually an inverse of the story with Italy and South Korea. Although green is often associated with Italy, so is red.
    • Often, it’s better to stick with neutral colors while highlighting the specific bar that communicates the key insight to the user.


5). “Worldometer” Coronavirus Tracker Table

Avinash Kaushik, a popular thought leader on analytics, brought this up into his newsletter. Tables are often controversial with data visualization, as it can often ask the user to do much of the work. However, the takeaway here is the choice of data and context they provide.

From Kaushik’s newsletter, which we think describes this well:

“Sometimes the best dashboard is a simple table with intelligently selected KPIs! 

My brilliant (quant) wife, having looked at New Case rates over a couple of days, came up with a personal benchmark. If in a country the daily growth is 35 – 40%, things are out of control, if they go high and come down to around 20% the situation is stabilizing.

That is how you know you’ve got a great dashboard on your hands, your audience can come up with an interesting way to make sense of it all.”


Content Around Coronavirus is Everywhere; Data Visualizations Can Help

Many organizations have stepped up to help provide their clients with expert advice on how the public health crisis and its spread to the economy may affect them.

We hope this article illustrates how data visualizations can be a crucial tool to break down the barrier that complex topics and ideas can create for your audiences.

We have found that tools like Tableau and other Business Intelligence tools allow content creators to stand up interactive visualizations quickly and even tell the story of how the situations are evolving through animation features.


If you are interested in using data visualizations in your content, we can help. Contact us to learn more.

Ben Magnuson
Associate Director, Data Strategy

As Associate Director, Data Strategy at One North, Ben supports clients by applying a strong data focus to marketing initiatives across channels and tools. He starts by gaining an understanding of each client’s unique goals and tactics, and guides them toward a strategic analytics program. He focuses on the creation of a meaningful feedback loop to help support and steer decision-making.