In the autumn of 2022, troubling headlines indicated that Europe could face a winter of blackouts as issues with the continent’s electricity grid combined with the ongoing energy crisis caused in large part by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Our data-driven visual story walks readers through the challenges faced by the European electricity network, explaining how many countries rely on sharing electricity across their borders through thick copper cables called interconnectors.
This piece visually reveals to the audience a lesser-known subject but one that has enormous relevance and impact.
It is a rich, immersive experience that grabs the reader’s attention from the first scroll, helping guide them through a topic that is difficult to understand.
The impact of the project was reflected in the comments section, where readers praised both the content and presentation:
“Brilliant and really important, well done FT!”
“Congratulations for this piece. A complete revelation to me, very engaging structure and presentation. Nice work FTeam.”
“Excellent, clear and informative article. Kudos to the team for making this so simple to understand.”
“What an amazing piece. I love the format and learnt a great deal.”
The piece was highly engaging, with over 40% of the audience who started the story motivated to continue to the end, making it one of our most engaging visual stories of the year.
Despite being published behind the FT paywall, the project received considerable attention and plaudits across a variety of social platforms.
One of our missions is to produce visual journalism which serves all audiences and for this project the team was eager to push for better accessibility.
As well as creating meaningful alternative text for screen readers and a high-contrast colour palette for graphics, we offered readers who struggle with dark text on light backgrounds an alternative reading experience via a toggle on the landing page.
Online collaboration tool Figjam allowed members of the team to brainstorm and storyboard. Figma was used for wireframing and the production of high-fidelity designs.
We carefully selected a high-contrast palette of blues with a bright yellow accent colour. This reflected the electric undertones crackling through the content and also allowed us to guide the reader through key elements as they scrolled through the story.
Critical to our workflow was the APCA Contrast Calculator, a new method for calculating and predicting readability contrast which we used throughout the project.
This meant extracting the lines as vectors from the PDF and manually identifying the interconnectors and border points. Then the entire vector file was geo-referenced and converted to a geojson to load into MapBox.
Perhaps the most challenging part of the story was visualising electricity ‘pulsing’ across the network. With help from the turf library, we created a function that took start and end coordinates, as well as a value between 1 and 10 for the size of the circle, and then returned an animated view of the pulsing circles between those two coordinates.
Much of the other energy data was open source and available online, but not always in the most accessible format. The geo-data for Norway’s hydropower dam was in Norwegian and needed to be translated. We built an R scraper to check the latest status of the French reactors. And we plotted months of hourly electricity data to help decide which day was most representative of a typical 24 hours of UK usage.
Context about the project:
Europe’s energy security has been a pressing concern since tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated in late 2021. The region’s gas dependence has dominated the news, with the names of pipelines such as Nord Stream becoming well known.
However, in recent months another pivotal system has come under threat: Europe’s vast electricity transmission grid and the network of interconnectors that facilitate the cross-border sharing of power.
By visualising this complex network and showing how years of cooperation have ensured European nations have electricity when they need it, we aimed to highlight how energy nationalism and recent power generation issues were converging to threaten access to energy during the time of the year when it is needed the most.
There is much high-frequency open-source data on energy but it is often buried within specific organisation’s websites. Speaking with experts in the sector was essential to our data gathering, which included accessing FTP servers for hourly cross-border electricity flows, translating Norwegian language hydrodam data portals and trawling sites of astronaut photography for night photos of cities taken from the International Space Station.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Design with accessibility in mind from the beginning. We felt that by taking an accessibility perspective and carefully considering the expectations of our readers we created an enhanced experience. As news teams increasingly produce visual stories using new technologies it is essential to prioritise UX best practices to ensure journalism can reach its broadest audience possible.
A visual storytelling approach was the key driver of our journalism and enabled us to achieve a level of explanation that could not have been achieved with words alone.
By guiding the reader around the region’s transmission grid, and showing additional evidence to illustrate the system’s current constraints and challenges, we were able to add pertinence to what could otherwise have been a somewhat abstract notion of energy sharing.
Our readers’ positive response to learning about this essential yet largely unknown and unseen system that has an enormous impact on everyday life reinforced that visual storytelling is a fantastic way to enlighten and delight subscribers.