2022 Shortlist

One year ago, the first Texan was killed by COVID-19. 47,000 deaths followed — and it’s not over.

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Texas Tribune

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 15/3/2021

Credit: Mandi Cai, Emily Albracht and Chris Essig

Biography: Mandi Cai tells stories with code and graphics as part of the Tribune’s data visuals team. Emily Albracht is a multidisciplinary designer who develops and maintains the visual design systems and brand guidelines for The Texas Tribune. Chris Essig is the deputy data visuals editor at the Texas Tribune.

Project description:

This timeline tracks COVID-19’s rampage through Texas in its first year: the growing death toll, the policy decisions made in response to the pandemic that often influenced its course and the stories of some of the Texans claimed by the virus. Pressed flowers are shown throughout to represent lives lost.

Impact reached:

Every day from April 2020 to May 2021, the Texas Tribune’s data visuals team published a coronavirus case tracker. As the numbers grew, we realized we were feeling numb to the scale of the tragedy. This project about the people who died was an effort to bring humanity back into those statistics. After publishing this, we heard from readers who had lost a relative to coronavirus — they deeply appreciated how much care we took in telling this story. This is the best feedback we’ve ever received on a project, and we believe it’s because the story came from a place of deep empathy for its subjects.

Techniques/technologies used:

People have a hard time understanding very large numbers. Our brains can’t quite process the scope and magnitude of a mass casualty event like the slow-motion pandemic that we have lived through. As the Tribune’s five-person data visuals team updated our case tracker data each day, we also felt that we were becoming numb to the scale of the tragedy, even though many of the Texans who died are our neighbors and friends. We told this story to try to bring humanity back into those statistics. The design is innovative — we used a statistical formula to spread pressed flowers out proportionally based on the number of people who died each week. A greater abundance of flowers represents a period where more people died. Flowers are a symbol of mourning, and at the moments in the story where the flowers are thickest, more Texans were mourning their loved ones.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The reporting for this story was fairly straightforward — we gathered this data from the state every day for over a year, and the narrative is built around stories that our colleagues told along the way. We did have to overcome great obstacles in visualizing the data and designing the story. We did not want the visualization to trivialize the lives of those who died or cause trauma to their loved ones. They were people, not statistics. Once we chose a pressed flower motif, we had to solve the technical puzzle of how to add more than 2,300 images of flowers to the page and still have it load on phones. Above all, we sought to tell a story with empathy and poignancy.

What can others learn from this project?

Early collaboration between data reporters, designers and editors is key to telling a story like this fairly and empathetically. Sometimes the simplest approach is best, but this project is also deceptively simple — the technical lift to make it load seamlessly took a lot of effort from our team. It was worthwhile.

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