As train travel becomes more and more popular in view of its relatively low environmental impact, we’ve investigated some of the main barriers preventing European citizens from taking the train more often. We mapped all active passenger stations in 16 EU member states and crossed those data with the population grid, to get a fine-grained picture of the reachability of train stations across the different European regions. This work was complemented by on-field reporting and national in-depth analyses, contributing to the collaborative and transnational character of the investigation, which is available in 11 languages.
The project was published right before Christmas 2019, so it hasn’t been circulating for a long time – it is meant to focus on long-lasting trends and to exert an impact over time, as it circulates more and more in its different linguistic versions. This is typical of the projects of the European Data Journalism Network, which doesn’t have a large audience of its own but relies extensively on the involvement of its member organizations, building upon and disseminating the network’s investigations to their own public. Early feedback by readers and partners was encouraging however, and more stories based on the collected data are going to be published in the coming weeks.
In order to immerse and engage the audience in the navigation, we focused on the relation between the topic of the investigation, typography, and the visualizations. Indeed, the whole visual relies on the concept of travel: a metaphorical line that connects two distant points, echoing train travel between two stations. This was the starting point for the design, which relied heavily on a semantic approach: visuals behave as the meaning they drive. Not only visuals: typography was also specifically designed in connection with the topic, as some letters were deliberately stretched in order to convey the concept of distance.
In terms of technology, we used d3.js to develop dynamic visualizations that animate when the reader scrolls. We implemented a serpentine chart for d3, which wasn’t existing before – especially to express distances. We were inspired by the early serpentine-based timelines for “How Long Do Animals Live?” designed by Otto and Marie Neurath in 1939. The challenge was to adapt a chart initially designed to represent time spans to a chart representing distances. More specifically, we had to calculate and correct the distortion caused by the different radiuses in the curve of the serpentines, so to let the chart represent the data correctly.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Coordination was the hardest part of the project, as a dozen of different partners based in different European countries were asked to contribute to it. This was the second large collaborative investigation run by the European Data Journalism Network, so we couldn’t count on well-established workflows. Network members were asked to contribute to the data collection/analysis by checking or integrating collected national data, while the following phases were managed by Journalism++ (in charge of data research and of the text for the main article), Sheldon.studio (in charge of the design of the main article), and OBC Transeuropa, which provided overall editorial coordination and took care of the impact and dissemination strategy.
Collaborative transnational data-driven projects can bring a lot of added value, as a single media organization would hardly be able to collect and master such an amount of information and to navigate through national specificities. Yet large collaborative investigations are very challenging in terms of coordination and management, as news organisations have different skills but are not used to working together, and they often have different expectations and standards. It was not trivial to come out with a product that would meet the demands of the network members, be in line with the budget and standards of EDJNet, and work reasonably well across borders – as we were presenting the same main story to a Swede, a Greek, or a Hungarian, coming entirely in his or her own language.
What can others learn from this project?
In the last years, only a few projects connected data visualizations with typography. In particular, it was rare for typography to be specifically designed or chosen in connection with the topic of a given data-driven story. For this reason, we believe that our project contributes to innovation in data and visual journalism projects, by feeding the debate on design and highlighting the immersive potential of apparently simple techniques.
The other feature of the project we are particularly proud of is its truly transnational character, which makes an ambitious work of data journalism directly accessible to a variety of audiences, including those based in European countries where data journalism is still not strong. It is possible – and valuable – to develop a data-driven project in several languages, but this requires effective workflows and the early adoption of a multilingual and multi-country perspective starting from the stage of the investigation’s design.
However, country comparisons may tell little of actual relevance to a given reader and to his or her daily experience: that is why we chose to include 16 different countries on one hand, but to go deep down to the local level on the other hand. In this way, we provided readers with a story that offers them both the large European picture and fine-grained data linked to their own everyday reality. Regional specificities and similarities across borders come out more clearly in this way, and it becomes easier for both national and local media across Europe to build their own stories out of data collected by the European Data Journalism Network.