Covid-19 in Switzerland: This is what the pandemic would look like if the country were a block of flats

Country/area: Switzerland

Organisation: Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 22 Dec 2020

Credit: Adina Renner, Anja Lemcke, Roman Karavia, Barnaby Skinner

Project description:

We are all affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. But in the daily flood of numbers, the extent of the crisis is often difficult to grasp. In this article, we ask the question: How does the coronavirus affect the lives of people living in Switzerland, if the country were a residential complex with 100 inhabitants? By breaking down the numbers for this «Corona House», the reader is led through the economic, health, and social impacts the virus had on the Swiss population in 2020.  

Impact reached:

The article was one of the most-read articles in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) in the week of its publication. It also yielded 25 new paid subscriptions and 42 new registrations. Furthermore, the story was featured in various outstanding data journalism collections, such as the monthly “Best of the Visualization Web” compilation by Andy Kirk and GIJN’s “Data Journalism Top 10” list.

Online, the article caused fruitful discussions among our readers: Some readers remarked how applying the statistics to 100 people renders one of the most extensive problems of the pandemic visible: Of the 100 residents of the “Corona House” not one dies. However, many are affected by health problems caused both by the virus itself and by the pandemic at large. This discrepancy between a relatively low lethality and the dispersed and thus more invisible secondary impacts is what makes the various political approaches to curb the pandemic so controversial. Beyond these discussions, readers also praised the way we told the story. One reader, for example, wrote in the comment section: “Compliments! A great example of how serious press work can enlighten (…).” Another person commented: “Bravo NZZ. A sight to behold! An example of enjoyable online journalism.” From these online comments and discussions, we gather that the story made an important contribution to the understanding of the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on Swiss society.

Techniques/technologies used:

As the reader scrolls through the story, an illustration of the “Corona House” and its residents stays in a fixed position while different statistics are faded in as a short sentence. Those residents that are affected by the statistic are highlighted visually. These “scrollytelling” elements alternate with brief summaries of feature stories by the NZZ, portraying real people’s struggles in the pandemic. More detailed illustrations showing life within the apartments accompany those summaries.

We based the residents and the configuration of the households in the residential complex on official population statistics by the Swiss Federal Office for Statistics. The data on the impacts of Covid-19 across economic and social spheres stems from various sources, such as surveys, official covid-19 statistics, and scientific studies. 

The story concept was created through an iterative sketching process. For the production, we later turned to Adobe Illustrator and Sketch. Data was collected collaboratively in a Google spreadsheet. We developed the story’s online implementation with our own charting tool “Q” which allows us to add custom code to our Content Management System called “Livingdocs”. The custom code is written in HTML, CSS and Javascript, specifically sevelte.js. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

This project’s challenge was to condense the impacts of a global health pandemic into a coherent story that makes abstract concepts and large numbers more tangible. The story went through multiple iterations to curate the most important and prevalent statistics related to the pandemic and to sharpen the visual storytelling concept. In effect, the project combines two approaches: the statistical game of applying numbers to a small sample and the visual metaphor of the “Corona House”, which addresses how people have become isolated in their own four walls during the pandemic. This combination is reflected in the visual style of the story, which merges data and illustrative elements. We believe that the resulting playfulness makes for a powerful, immersive way to look at statistics that allows a broad range of people to “find themselves” within this story.  

What can others learn from this project?

One of the core questions that data journalists should ask themselves daily is how a number relates to their readers’ lives. While governments create numbers, and scientists compute numbers, data journalists are in the business of communicating numbers. That doesn’t mean that journalists cannot be active players on the data aggregation and analysis side of a story. It just means that, at the end of the day, no matter what has happened in the process before, the numbers have to be communicated tangibly. This project demonstrates how making numbers more relevant to the individual can be carried out on multiple levels. On the side of the data, we can think of ways to break down large numbers to more accessible sizes and choose statistical concepts that make numbers relevant to people’s lives. On the side of the visual storytelling concept, we can use visual metaphors and alternate between overviews and detailed examples to allow the reader to gain a foothold in the story. And on the side of the visualization, we can choose metaphors and styles that are immediate and reflect life rather than abstract it. 

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