Anatomy of our battle against COVID-19

Country/area: Australia

Organisation: ABC News

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 25/2/2021

Credit: Inga Ting, Nathanael Scott, Alex Palmer, Katia Shatoba, Michael Workman, Mark Doman and Stephen Hutcheon

Biography: Inga Ting (data journalist), Alex Palmer (designer), Nathanael Scott (developer), Katia Shatoba (developer), Michael Workman (data compilation), Mark Doman (digital journalist) and Stephen Hutcheon (supervising producer) are part of ABC New’s Digital Story Innovations team.

Project description:

This article, published on the anniversary of Australia’s first documented cases of COVID-19, uses the ABC’s national dataset of every confirmed coronavirus case to tell the story of how Australia’s battle with the disease unfolded in its first year.

It combines one of Australia’s most comprehensive and detailed COVID datasets with expert commentary and testimony from ordinary people across the nation in a forensic examination of how the pandemic unfolded in Australia, how well our government succeeded in keeping Australians safe – and at what cost.

Impact reached:

In a world saturated with daily news and data about the pandemic, this project was able to distill a year’s worth of data into a central narrative that threaded the pivotal moments in Australia’s battle with COVID with expert analysis to help Australians understand the cataclysmic events of the past year.

By using a data-driven approach, the project helped deepen public understanding of the successes and failures of policy decisions taken over the previous year. It also underscored what Australians had helped to achieve through their cooperation with government and public health experts. By raising public awareness of these issues, the story also enabled richer debate about future public health decisions.

In addition, our detailed data analysis of infections in aged care forced the government to improve its own collection of aged care data, after our work revealed numerous errors in their records.

Hundreds of readers responded to a callout asking how they had been affected by the pandemic. Our team spent days compiling these responses into a public “diary” and we received dozens of messages thanking us for showing that despite many people feeling alone during the lockdowns, their experiences had been shared by others across the country..

An unusually large numerous requests were made (by individual members of the public and organisations researching the pandemic) for copies of the opening illustration, which we believe gives some indication of this particular visualisation.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used a combination of Excel, Google sheets and Tableau Prep to collect, share, catalogue and clean data.

We used Tableau Desktop to analyse and explore the data, as well as draft and create proof-of-concept visualisations. The density map of Melbourne cases was also created in Tableau Desktop.

The interactive charts, visualistions, and particle animation were created using the D3 framework.

Static charts were created in Tableau Desktop and then designed and completed in Adobe Illustrator.

First-person stories were collected using the crowdsourcing tool Screendoor.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of the project was collecting the data; a second challenge was working out how to cut through pandemic (and COVID data) fatigue.

Our team has led the ABC’s collection and analysis of domestic coronavirus statistics, maintaining a database that tracks key information about Australia’s fight against COVID-19.
Maintaining this database is not a straightforward exercise. The data is separately compiled by each of Australia’s eight state and territory health departments, plus the federal health department. Each uses its own definitions, protocols and processes.

On top of that, the federal department “locks away” much of its data in charts, PDFs and powerpoint slides that change without notice, making it difficult to scrape. While it eventually began reporting daily figures on a webpage, the data is only available for 24 hours and the department refuses to share historical data with the public or media.

Requests for clarification, further information or explanations for data anomalies are frequently ignored, making data processing, cleaning and reconciliation extremely difficult.
Much of the details of each case, including source of infection, links to known clusters, and identities of deaths, were collected manually by our team by combing press releases, media reports, surveillance reports and other documents.

Data tracking the daily progression of dozens of clusters also had to be pieced together by our team.

Combining all these figures into a national dataset that allows meaningful comparisons across the jurisdictions was a daily battle that required forensic interrogation of multiple disparate datasets and intimate understanding of the methodology behind each one. To ensure the highest standards of data integrity we work closely with each of the nine health departments plus a network of researchers, physicians and public health experts.

What can others learn from this project?

This project shows how journalists can:
* Responsibly and meaningfully communicate government data to the public during a crisis. This helps to deepen trust between the public and the government/public institutions, reduce fear, and encourage wider debate about public policy
* Hold the government to account through the process of verifying/analysing (and questioning) government-reported data
* Create independent sources of data. These original datasets are indispensable for holding the government to account and shaping public policy. Citing our own sources of data has enabled us to pressure the government into improving its existing data or releasing new and more detailed data
* Link “cold, hard” numbers, often seen as objective and unemotional, with their meaning and impact in the real world, reminding the public that behind every covid statistic is a person.

The story also demonstrates journalism’s cathartic role in society. By giving the public an outlet to share their fear, joy, grief and other experiences, our story brought out a sense of community and helped Australians process these life-changing events.

Project links: