Ainslie Johnstone

Entry type: Portfolio

Country/area: United Kingdom

Publishing organisation: The Economist

Organisation size: Big

Cover letter:

Dear Sigma Award Judges,

I would be delighted if you could please consider my 2022 portfolio entry for the Sigma Awards.

I am a data journalist, based in London, working at The Economist magazine. I joined the team in August 2021, and before that was a post-doctoral research fellow in the Institute of Neurology at University College London.

I was motivated to make the move from neuroscience research into data journalism during the covid-19 pandemic. At that time I realised how data, communicated well, was crucial to helping people to understand the world around them. Through my research work I had a strong background in statistics and had enjoyed writing popular science articles about developments in my field of neuroscience. After trying my hand at a few data journalism projects I applied for the job at The Economist and was accepted.

My main interests are in science, health, education, climate and the environment, although I have written articles on many different topics. Since beginning work at The Economist I have also become increasingly interested in using satellite imaging and geo-spatial analysis in my work (which bears some similarities to MRI brain image analysis which I performed in my pre-journalism life). Not only is this an unusual skill set for a journalist, meaning my pieces can be relatively unique, geospatial data also often makes for rich, immersive data visualisations and lends itself to interactives. I aim to use my skills to cover important topics, and hope my work can have a positive impact.

I take inspiration from many sources. Most of my stories are a data-driven take on a subject that is in the news or the public consciousness. I typically read around the academic literature to make sure I am not replicating something that already exists, and talk with researchers to ensure that I will be using best practices in the field. This has lead to many collaborations with researchers and I am hoping aspects from several of my pieces will contribute to academic papers.

The Economist has provided me with many great data journalism mentors, without whom I could not have done most of this work. Special thanks to Dan Rosenheck, my editor, and to all the members of data and visualisation teams. In the projects mentioned below Rosamund Pearce, Matt McLean, Evan Hensleigh, Xavi Gimenez and Andreas Moor are to thank for bringing the stories to life with visualisations and interactive elements.

I have lots of exciting ideas for 2023, including a deep-dive into climate change in India, an analysis of insider trading in clinical trials and a look at the world’s access to water. I am thrilled that my job allows me to ask, and answer, the most interesting and important questions facing the world.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to consider my application.

Yours faithfully,
Ainslie Johnstone

Description of portfolio:

This portfolio contains my original research data-journalism projects from the year 2022.

**Nearly half of Mariupol has suffered grave damage** (link 1)
_April 23rd 2022_
Contribution: Conception, research, data-analysis and writing

After nearly two months under siege by Russian forces, what was left of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol?

Using freely-available satellite data from the European Space Agency, I detected damage to building across the city. The location of damage was matched up to individual buildings using Open Street Map. I verified the technique by comparing a list of damaged buildings from earlier in the war, compiled by the UN, to the results from our pipeline using satellite data from the same time.

I found that nearly 45% of the built up area had suffered damage, including 33% of residential buildings.

**Republican senators gained almost 160,000 Twitter followers after Elon Musk’s deal** (link 2)
_April 27th 2022_
Contribution: Conception, research, data-analysis and writing

Did the prospect of Mr Musk in charge of Twitter cause a shift in user demographics?

I used data on follower numbers of America’s members of Congress to study users political preferences. The average number of followers for all Senate Democrats dropped by around 0.2% between April 25th and April 26th. Accounts linked to Republicans, however, increased by 0.8%. The same was true for the House of Representatives, with Democrats losing and Republicans gaining followers. Twitter had shifted right-wards.

After we published this article several other outlets also released similar, but less thorough analyses. I believe I did this first, and best!

**The Brazilian Amazon has been a net carbon emitter since 2016** (link 3)
_May 21st 2022_
Contribution: Conception, research, data-analysis and writing

Is the destruction of the Amazon releasing more carbon than the forest can absorb?

Using high resolition maps of carbon emissions and carbon removals, produced by Global Forest Watch, and combining with maps of yearly tree removals, I calculated the yearly carbon flux for the Brazilian Amazon. Sinice 2016 the Amazon has been a net carbon emitter. Over the last 20 years the Brazillian Amazon has lost 350,000 square kms of forest, and emitted 13% more CO2 than it absorbed.

**A rising share of people are exposed to dangerously high temperatures** (link 4)
_July 21st 2022_
Contribution: Conception, research, data-analysis and writing

Just how much time does humanity spend exposed to dangerously high temperatures?

Combining gridded historic meteorological data with high resolution maps of population I calculated how the share of humanity experiencing extreme heat has changed over time. Extreme heat above 46°C is remarkably common, occurring three days per year for each person on Earth. As the temperature increases so too do the populations of the hottest countries. The share of time that people have felt very strong heat stress has risen by 50%.

**Russia is using energy as a weapon** (link 5)
_Nov 26th 2022_
Contribution: Conception, research, data-analysis and writing

The price of gas and electricity has surged as a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
High energy prices are not only bad for people’s wallets but also their health. As prices rise, the most vulnerable skimp on home heating, raising their risk for lung and heart problems.

With winter approaching, I modelled how deadly Putin’s ‘energy weapon’ might be. I predicted that high fuel prices could result in 150,000 excess deaths in Europe. More than have died in the fighting so far.

In a follow- up story (link 6) I also calculated how effective government interventions to cap energy prices might be for saving lives.

Project links: