40,000 dead. Although the death toll caused by COVID-19 is not as striking as in the United States, there is still a life lost and a bereaved family behind each death, and this threshold also deserves to be underlined in Canada. This number is so large that its magnitude is difficult to grasp. This is why we present Internet users with a sober, but immersive, data visualization to allow them to see the scale of this tragedy over the waves, the thresholds crossed and the defining moments of the pandemic.
Most American media have highlighted the death tolls of the pandemic using original data visualizations over the past few years. Seeing the threshold of 40,000 dead in Canada coming, we prepared in advance to release our own original visualization when that threshold would be reached. It happened in May 2022. Our project not only demonstrated that it was possible to deal with a widely covered subject in an innovative and original way, but also with restraint and respect considering the sensitivity surrounding the whole question of mortality. The other impact of our project was to remind people that despite a return to normality (starting around time of publication), COVID-19 was still claiming many lives in Canada and that some provinces had even recorded more deaths in 2022 that at the start of the pandemic, when there were major restrictions and no vaccine. Our project was also published at a time when daily data on the health situation was still released in Canada. Shortly after, several provinces and territories opted for a weekly mode of communication or even stopped reporting their data publicly altogether. Doing the same project today would not even be possible without the data we had at the time.
Our project takes the form of an immersive visualization in which the Internet user immerses himself and which is built as the story unfolds, i.e. over the thresholds and key moments of the COVID-19 pandemic. The story, based on the number of deaths recorded each day in Canada, is punctuated by the data, but also sheds a different light on the evolution of the pandemic and the various measures taken by the health authorities in parallel with the death occurring at the same time. We used Three.js to display the 40,000 points corresponding to each of the people who died from COVID-19 independently. More specifically, we developed custom shaders to improve performance by rendering each point with WebGL. In this way, we were able to activate the points one by one, as the counter of deaths increases. The use of Three.js has also enabled the development of the horizontal navigation, which offers better space optimization on mobile phones and which is different from what is usually seen. It is still designed to be as easy to use on a computer as on all mobile devices. A visualization in the same style was thought out for social networks, and we finally opted for a graph separating the dead by province and territories and which unfolds in several images in an Instagram album.
Context about the project:
In May 2022, the Canadian population was widely vaccinated and sanitary measures began to fall, suggesting an imminent return to normality. However, an important threshold would be crossed: 40,000 dead. This threshold was going to be the trigger for the publication of our project, on which we had started working at the beginning of spring (after a particularly deadly winter). The increase in the number of deaths in the spring even meant that we had to publish faster than we had planned. Our project was also published at a time when a change was taking place in the way data on the health situation in Canada was collected and communicated. From the start of the pandemic, Radio-Canada built its own database using information from the different provinces in order to feed our dashboard monitoring the progression of the pandemic. However, provinces do not count cases, recoveries and deaths in the same way. We therefore decided to use data from the Public Health Agency of Canada to build our visualization. But right after the publication, several provinces and territories opted for a weekly communication mode or even stopped reporting their data publicly altogether, at a time where the data about mortality remained one of the last indicators to measure the progress of the pandemic. The number of cases had been underestimated for several months across the country, due to the introduction of rapid tests and limited access to PCR tests. All these upheavals have also prevented us from updating our project, since we were now unable to access daily pan-Canadian data. Unfortunately, updating it was part of our initial objective, since all our infrastructure had been built to relaunch the project upon reaching the thresholds of 45,000 dead, and even 50,000 dead in 2023.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Several projects have highlighted mortality thresholds related to COVID-19, both in Canada and around the world. Even though it is the same topic, there are several ways to visualize it. Everyone’s work can even serve as inspiration to achieve a result that is innovative, original and standing out. Our approach also allowed us to find a way to develop a graphic that would be immersive and interesting, and that would allow the Internet user to navigate through the story. It’s not just a simple timeline. And even if it is a morbid subject, we have managed to approach it in a sober and respectful way for the families of the victims. The other thing to point out is that when working with evolving data, we are always at the mercy of the source. A change in the methodology or in the collection of data can compromise the project and impose changes. You always have to be able to plan and adapt.