No Epicentro (At the epicenter)
Organisation: Agência Lupa, Google News Initiative
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 24 Jul 2020
Credit: Gilberto Scofield Junior, Natalia Leal, Vinicius Sueiro, Tiago Maranhão, Rodrigo Menegat, Marco Tulio Pires, Alberto Cairo
This work by journalists at Agencia Lupa brought context to a pandemic that at times has seemed so large, so devastating, that the impact would be lost in sheer numbers. This was especially true in late June 2020, when 58,390 Brazilians had already died from the COVID-19 pandemic. The team members brought to the project their own disparate circumstances, in cities ravaged by the virus to to the countryside or interior cities with far fewer cases. “The logic is valid for those in São Paulo, Brasília or anywhere: the more familiar the unit of measurement, the easier it is to understand the dimension of the epidemic. And is there anything more familiar than the place where we live?” the journalists wrote as part of their project. The final result was a visualization built on a series of complex computational tasks but that clearly puts the deaths into the context of one’s own town or neighborhood. In one part of the project’s interactive simulation, a reader sees a a map of a nearby city. Part of the text notes that if all the deaths had occurred in that city, “it would be enough to erase it from the map. No one would be left alive.” This work was so compelling and so well done, that when the Washington Post decided to attempt its own visualization, they used the entire simulation, with credit, but geared to the United States. The journalists involved provide their methodology, their code and their thinking process. At the end of their how-to piece, they note they had to learn new libraries and coding and give themselves a self-deprecating nod: “A skilled developer is likely to read our source code and grimace. It is likely that he is right. Our answer? Done is better than perfect.” By awarding them a Sigma, our answer is: Done and perfect.
No epicentro is a data visualization tool created with the aim of alerting to the amazing numbers of Covid-19 deaths in Brazil. Up until 2021 January 5th, over 196,000 people had died due to Covid‑19 in the country. But it can be difficult to visualize it so we thought: what if all these deaths had happened near you? Since major Covid‑19 outbreaks happened in metropolitan areas, many Brazilians don’t see the effects of the disease in their daily lives. This simulation was created to make the dimension of our losses easier to understand. It was replicated by “The Washington Post”.
The project was published on July 24th. One week after its launch, it had more than 210,000 page views. Among those, 178,000 were unique users. But the most remarkable indicator is that these people spent, on average, 10 minutes and 54 seconds browsing the website. This is way above market average. Also, people really dove into the story: for every 100 people who began the narrative experience, 71 reached the end of the narrative. Also, by publishing “No Epicentro”, Agência Lupa added a new activity – data visualization projects – in its business portfolio.
One of the biggest TV celebrities in Brazil, Luciano Huck, tweeted about the awareness the tool was able to bring and invited all his 13,1 million followers to experience “No epicentro”. The tool was reported in the biggest brazilian national daily, “Folha de S,. Paulo” (https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/equilibrioesaude/2020/07/plataforma-mostra-o-que-ocorreria-se-a-pandemia-de-covid-19-estivesse-concentrada-na-sua-vizinhanca.shtml).
The tool was also reported on prime time TV show Fantastico, biggest audience on Sunday television in the country: https://g1.globo.com/fantastico/noticia/2020/08/09/brasil-chega-aos-100-mil-mortos-por-covid-aplicativo-dimensiona-devastacao-da-doenca.ghtml.
It also aired on CNN Brasil: https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/tecnologia/2020/07/24/plataforma-dimensiona-mortes-por-covid-19-no-pais-a-partir-de-dados-locais
And as said before, in November 2020 “No epicentro” was replicated by the american national daily “The Washington Post” with the name “At the epicenter” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/coronavirus-deaths-neighborhood/).
Finally, “No epicentro” was also awarded “Best Visualization Tool” at WANIFRA LATAM DiGITAL AWARDS 2020 (https://events.wan-ifra.org/events/2020-latam-digital-media-awards/content/4667) and will compete with other visualizaton tool created all around the world this year.
But an important point was the issues we faced while choosing the best dataset for the job. The most critical database would be the representation of Brazil’s population distribution. All calculations would be made from that and there were two options, both from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). The most detailed of those is the statistical grid, a division of the Brazilian territory in a series of 200m² rectangles in urban areas and 1km² in rural areas. The other alternative were the census tracts. They are usually smaller in very populated areas and larger in areas with less population density. At first, it seemed that the better choice was to use the most detailed data possible, but the first tests with the statistical grid already showed performance problems, so we opted for the census tracts.
The second database was the number of deaths by Covid-19 in Brazil. However, the disclosure of these figures by public authorities has been confusing since the beginning of the pandemic. In the first weeks, it was erratic and not very granular. Then, it underwent methodological changes that undermined confidence in official information. To circumvent this, independent entities started to collect and publish these statistics. We chose the survey of Brasil.io, a team of about 40 volunteers who compiled daily cases and deaths in each city in the country since March 2020.
The project was under GNU and Creative Commons licenses, which allowed the content to be reproduced. “No epicentro” is also open source.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The whole awareness/perception task was hard. On March 16, 2020, the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, said that the country would not “overate” the new coronavirus and that there was “hysteria” regarding Covid-19. On that day, the country registered 34 cases of contamination by SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes the disease. The following day, March 17, Brazil saw its first death by Covid-19 – a retired doorman, Manoel Messias Freitas Filho, 62, who lived in São Paulo. From then on, the numbers of deaths and registered cases of contamination by the new coronavirus became routine for the Brazilians, occupying a good part of national Journalism. As the days passed, those numbers grew in geometric progression, so that the words “oversize” and “hysteria”, from May on, lost their meaning completely. In September, more than 1000 Brazilians were dying each day.
In addition, with misinformation spread and social isolation measures being partially adhered to, it became more difficult to see, in fact, what the new coronavirus was causing. Was it a real pandemic or a hoax? It seemed that “other people” were dying, not me. The numbers were faceless. How to show the human cost of the disease beyond misinformation, hours of boredom and sidewalks half empty? With this in mind, the team at “No epicentro” started to work on references that could bring familiarity to the theme and could place the user at the center of this experience. For that, is there anything more familiar than the place where we live? Although this data did not reflect the reality as a whole, placing all the victims of the new coronavirus “at the side” of the user was a way of bringing the tragedy closer to the perception of each one.
What can others learn from this project?
The most important lesson we learned – and other journalists can learn from the process by reading “the making of No epicentro”, published in Medium (https://medium.com/datavizbr/como-fizemos-o-mapa-interativo-que-te-coloca-no-epicentro-da-epidemia-de-covid-19-no-brasil-4ce949a9183b) and in GitHub (https://github.com/noepicentro/) – was how valuable a multidisciplinary team is when we talk about digital journalism. Three professionals specialized in data journalism and visual narratives were responsible for the development of the project: the designer Vinicius Sueiro, the journalist-programmer Rodrigo Menegat and the developer Tiago Maranhão. Gilberto Scofield Jr., Director of Strategy and Business at Agência Lupa, Natalia Leal, Content Director at Lupa, and Marco Túlio Pires, Google News Lab Lead in Brazil, were also part of the team, everybody coordinated by one of the best data-visualization professionals in the world, Alberto Cairo, from University of Miami.
We also learned that good communication and openness to constructive criticism is key for achieving positive outcomes. When the team was set up, it seemed like all the development tasks were very compartmentalized and could be performed individually: to us, it was really possible that everyone involved sat at their computers, did their parts and just talked to each other when assembling the parts.
Luckily, the routine was different. The development team itself talked almost non-stop in a WhatsApp group chat which was particularly active late at night, with conversations about all dimensions of the content. The extended team, with professionals from Lupa and Google, met weekly on video conferences to discuss the product. Even though each professional had specific demands, everyone’s fingerprints are on every piece of the material.
In the end, the team worked under a strict division of labor, but with freedom to make suggestions on topics distant from each person’s responsibilities. The first half of the equation ensured productivity and efficiency. The second ensured creativity and critical sense.