How can we imagine the scale of Covid’s death toll?

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: BBC News, BBC World Service

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 7 Dec 2020

Credit: By Irene de la Torre Arenas, Sarah Rainbow, Scott Jarvis, Catriona Morrison, Ed Lowther and Harriet Agerholm

Project description:

During 2020 we spent many months producing charts, maps and other visualisations of coronavirus. But we wanted to see if we could try a different type of visualisation which would bring out a more reflective and less clinical presentation of the figures and so bring out the people and the loss the data represents. Designer Irene de la Torre Arenas had the simple idea of showing the pandemic as flower. As the stem grows it shows the number of cases, while the flower’s petals unfurl to represent the number of people who have died. Sonification was also used.

Impact reached:

As well as being produced in English the project was published in 10 other languages, including; Arabic, Farsi, Spanish and Urdu. 

Comments on social media described the project as powerful and sensitive. Our ambition in producing this visualisation was to offer a fresh look at a story that had been occupying everyone’s attention throughout 2020, and highlight a sense of loss that more traditional data visualisation does not traditionally attempt.

Arabic                   https://www.bbc.com/arabic/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Farsi                       https://www.bbc.com/persian/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Hausa                  https://www.bbc.com/hausa/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Indonesian           https://www.bbc.com/indonesia/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Japanese             https://www.bbc.com/japanese/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Portuguese           https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Serbian                https://www.bbc.com/serbian/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Spanish                https://www.bbc.com/mundo/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Turkish                 https://www.bbc.com/turkce/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb

Urdu                     https://www.bbc.com/urdu/resources/idt-7464500a-6368-4029-aa41-ab94e0ee09fb


Techniques/technologies used:

JavaScript and associated libraries including p5.js and d3 for the visualisation and sonification of the data. R for data processing and analysis, including components of the automated text reports for each country. Logic Pro and Spitfire sound library were used for the production of audio files in the sonification. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

It was challenging to step back from our usual focus of making information quick and easy to understand and instead attempt to produce something that people would want to experience, in a more reflective way.

We adopted an iterative working approach and cast aside many promising early versions after discovering, through continuous user-testing, that there may be better ways to achieve our aims.

The resulting page takes readers on a journey as they scroll down, first showing them the global headline coronavirus figures via an immersive experience at the top of the page. Readers are then encouraged to dig deeper into the regional differences in the data, before finally seeing the differences between individual countries.

This final element is also interactive, echoing the global story told at the top of the page, but on a more granular level.

The project featured on the BBC News site as part of a day of coverage focussing on grief. We hope it has contributed to the global conversation about the loss people have suffered due to the pandemic.

What can others learn from this project?

We hope that other journalists will see original ways to look at – and listen to – Covid statistics that have become so familiar to everyone over the course of the pandemic.

By using the symbol of a flower to help show that the virus affects people in nearly every country around the world, we sought to underline the pandemic as a collective experience. It was our aim to help people see a familiar topic in a new light, by taking a fresh approach to the data.

In this way, we hope to encourage others working with statistics to, on occaision, explore taking data visualisation in new directions.

In particular, we hope our peers will be inspired to consider sonification alongside more traditional visualisation techniques.

We also wanted to show that simple, open-source tools like R and JavaScript can be used to algorithmically generate unique text reports for each element in a dataset – in this project, one for each of the 213 countries and territories in the data.

Project links: