Flights over Kabul

Country/area: Singapore

Organisation: Reuters

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 20/08/2021

Credit: Simon Scarr, Manas Sharma, Marco Hernandez, Wen Foo, Anand Katakam, Gerry Doyle


The Reuters graphics team publishes visual stories and data. We typically cover all areas of the news, with content ranging from climate to financial markets. The team conceptualises, researches, reports, and executes many of the visual stories published.

Project description:

A series of data-driven projects explained the rush to evacuate Kabul city following the government collapse and a Taliban takeover which threw the capital into chaos. Coverage was produced on deadline as events were unfolding.

An analysis of flight path data revealed how helicopter activity shifted from embassy evacuations to increased activity around a CIA base outside of the city. The analysis also revealed how different types of aircraft contributed to the complex evacuation effort.

Impact reached:

The analysis revealed unreported information on helicopter and aircraft movement within the city, which was later storified by other news organisations. The breakdown of the flight data gave readers the most in-depth explanation of the evacuation effort published to date. 

Techniques/technologies used:

Python and Node.js were used to crunch the flight path data. Then QGIS was used to further explore and map json files which were exported. Maps were then built in QGIS with additional layers such as digital elevation models for terrain, road network data and more.

Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop were used to style all of the maps and other graphics which were placed in Ai2HTML files. The programs were also used to draw aircraft illustrations.

What was the hardest part of this project?

This project leveraged flight tracking data in order to make sense of what was going on with the evacuation effort. This was the most in-depth use of flight tracking data to tell the evacuation story.

Crunching and filtering hundreds of thousands of raw flight data points which represented hundreds of flights was a huge challenge. But the more difficult aspect was then using that data to find the narrative and tell the story.

The team were able to discover unreported helicopter activity and show how the military used a CIA base outside of the city. We were also able to plot how the shifts in helicopter activity to areas such as the embassies and green zone. We were also able to visualise and explain personnel evacuation conducted by commercial and military aircraft.

What can others learn from this project?

Even when covering chaotic events on the ground, there may be information that can be gleaned from the air or even from space. This could be flight data as people try to escape or as militaries use their airpower in times of crisis, or imagery from drones or satellites.

Airpower and airlines are crucial for managing any large scale unrest, and this is one way to see that. The same applies when covering natural disasters and large scale fires.

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