Domestic flights: when provinces infect each other

Country/area: Canada

Organisation: Radio-Canada, CBC

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 13/5/2021

Credit: Nael Shiab, Melanie Julien, Santiago Salcido, Martine Roy

Biography: Nael Shiab is a data journalist for CBC/Radio-Canada. He specializes in the analysis of large volumes of data and 3D interactive data visualizations.

Project description:

At the start of the pandemic, international flights have been the area of concern in Canada. But this exclusive analysis demonstrated how tens of thousands of people, some of whom are carriers of the virus that causes COVID-19, travelled across the country every week without testing or quarantine, at time of publication.

Impact reached:

In Canada, airports are under federal jurisdiction. During the first half of 2021, many provinces tried to stop travellers from entering their territory. However, their powers were limited. They could stop cars at their borders, but they had no control over the planes. At the time, several regions had established curfews or stay-at-home orders. Still, people could take a plane, travel thousands of kilometres in a few hours and land in a restricted area (or leave a restricted area) without being tested and without quarantine upon arrival. Meanwhile, international travellers had to respect stringent rules. Canada was very focused on foreigners, even if there was evidence of inter-provincial contaminations.
This exclusive story was among the reports that shifted the focus from international flights to domestic flights. Several provincial prime ministers asked the federal government to close airports or control domestic flights at least. In the end, with the vaccination campaign going on in 2021, the federal government required proof of vaccination to take a plane in Canada.

Techniques/technologies used:

I analyzed the data with the programming language R. The data comes from flightradar24.com. For the main interactive data visualization, I decided to create a 3D globe with the JavaScript library ThreeJS. I coded a custom WebGL shader for optimal performance to move the many planes along their trajectory. I coded the other charts using the d3.js library. Everything is adapted for both desktop and mobile screens. I also did the research, the interviews and wrote the story

What was the hardest part of this project?

At first, I intended to analyze the international air traffic in Canada. But while working on the data, I noticed how the domestic air traffic bounced back after the spring of 2020. And I pivoted my complete analysis. It wasn’t an easy decision. With 3.6 million flights in the database, it involved redoing a big part of the analysis and the research. But this critical shift helped publish an essential story that wasn’t told at the time.
For the data visualization, I was looking for a representation that would respect the spherical shape of the earth. Therefore, I went for a 3D globe. This approach works very well for long-distance trajectories and big countries like Canada. However, it was a technical challenge to translate latitude and longitude of the planes (coordinates in 2D space) to coordinates in a 3D space. We did a lot of work on the design as well (stars in the background, for example) to create a unique and immersive experience for the reader.

What can others learn from this project?

First, I hope other journalists will be aware of FlightRadar24’s data. It’s an excellent source of information, and their team is always happy to help reporters. All of the analysis in R code is public, and anyone could dig into it for their own reporting. On the data visualization aspect of the project, I hope that 3D visualizations like this one will be more common in the future. Open-source JavaScript libraries like ThreeJs are amazing and could even be used for augmented and virtual reality projects. With this kind of approach, the engagement from the readers is incredible and very rewarding. But you still need a great journalistic story first, of course!

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