See how global warming has changed the world since your childhood

Category: Best visualization (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Australia

Organisation: ABC News (Australia)

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 12 Jun 2019

Credit: Tim Leslie (Reporter/Producer), Nathan Hoad (Designer/Developer), Joshua Byrd (Developer), Ben Spraggon (Designer), Emma Machan (Illustrator), Cristen Tilley (Editor), Matt Liddy (Editor)

Project description:

“See how global warming has changed the world since your childhood” is an interactive story that gives the audience a personalised look at the change in temperatures in their lifetime, how this change has already impacted the world around them, and what the future could hold. By asking the audience to select the year they’re born, we framed the impact of climate change in the context of their own life. This makes the story immediately relatable and emphasising the reality that climate change is not just a problem affecting the future — but also the present.

Impact reached:

The story was incredibly successful when published, quickly reaching a large local and international audience. It resonated with readers on a deeply personal level, and is an excellent example of how personal and emotive data visualisation can be.

After the piece was published it was reviewed by four scientists for Climate Feedback, who estimated its overall scientific credibility to be ‘very high’.

On social media it has been shared widely by readers, who have spoken about how it transformed their understanding of climate change, and by expert science communicators, who praised how effective it is in conveying the key concepts and consequences of climate change.

“I wish that I could convince every politician in the world to take five minutes for this interactive. It shows how climate change has impacted the world since your childhood, and peeks into the future.” The Planetary Security Initiative (Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs) – Twitter

“This is the most important thing to read as we enter the 2020s. Shocking… plus if we don’t address climate change now, by 2070, Sydney will routinely reach temperatures in the 50s.” Dr Kate Devitt – Twitter

“This is some of the most powerful, informative, effective journalism about climate change and what can still be done that I’ve ever seen. As the fires rage and Canberra doubles down on batshit crazy I’m showing this to every single person I know… This really was like a bright shining beacon in the smoke haze that is our absolutely soul draining news feed.” Sophie Black – Twitter

Two months on it has amassed over 950,000 pageviews and continues to be read and shared by audiences. Published against the backdrop of the bushfire crisis in Australia, it provided a compelling explanation of the very effects that are devastating the country before our eyes.

Techniques/technologies used:

The story’s visualisation techniques build on the work of climate scientist Ed Hawkins, who with his ‘warming stripes’ showing temperature, has helped powerfully and simply convey the increase in global temperatures.

At the heart of the story is a dataset of changes in temperature — historical temperature anomalies in Australia, and future projections of Australian temperature anomalies under different emissions scenarios.

We take that data and use a range of visualisations — a temporal heatmap for the stripes that then transitions into a bar chart — to create a timeline of the reader’s past and possible future.

By annotating and customising the range of the visualisations, we place the reader at the heart of this narrative, in a deliberate strategy to force them to interrogate the common statement that ‘we had this weather when I was a child’.

It is dynamically generated by referencing a file that contains annual temperature anomaly against the reader’s year of birth. We use a JavaScript library called D3 to draw and transform the coloured bars on the page that represent the temperature anomaly.

This is driven by a custom-developed format, which ties the transitions of the visualisation to the user’s scroll position, so that they appear just as the relevant text is on screen.

For the historical data we used the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s climate variability & change time series graphs. For projections we turned to Dr James Goldie, a climate knowledge broker from the Monash Climate Change Communicaton Research Hub and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate Extremes

Dr Goldie used the KNMI Data Explorer to run multi-model means (32 models, one member per model, masked to Australia) of different temperature projections based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections for best and worst-case scenarios.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The challenge for our story was to shift the audience’s understanding of climate change from an abstract future problem to something that is deeply personal and is already impacting their lives.

The challenge with personalisation is to be able to create a story that speaks to an individual, without overloading the amount of information they need to give. We navigated this by asking for a single piece of information — their year of birth — and then used that to personalise the story.

But we also wanted to highlight the impact on the people our readers share their lives with. 

By using a six-year-old, and a child born today, we were able to give audiences something to project their own experiences on without having to gather more personal information. This strategy was born out on social media, where many people referenced their children when sharing the article.

When reporting on an issue as contentious as climate change it is vital that the scientific interpretation be accurate. To achieve this we collaborated with the Monash University Climate Change Communications, commissioning a custom calculation of modelling of future projections. 

The story had an extensive fact-check process that resulted in a 10-page document, and our interpretations and visualisations were pored over by a team of climate scientists at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate Extremes. This resulted in a piece of work that has both impressed climate scientists and communicators, but also become a resource for audiences to help share their understanding with other people — something that is evident in the patterns of sharing on social media.

The key to this success is the work that went into ensuring the science was clearly articulated, and the framing that kept this science at the heart of the narrative.

What can others learn from this project?

Often reporting on climate change is viewed as a challenge of informing the audience, but the success of this project shows how important marrying the hard science of climate change to the daily lives of our audience is in creating stories that help them connect. Our audience feedback was couched in terms of hope and fear, and offered an emotional outlet for readers while further informing them of the realities of climate change.

This story also offers an example of how, with the right framing and context, scientific data can be explained to the audience in a simple and effective way. In particular it shows the value in taking the time to explain a visualisation to the audience, and then returning to that same visualisation to make multiple editorial points and tell a complex story.

It also is a good example of creating a personal story that leaves space for the audience to fill with their own experiences and narratives. Too often with personalisation it is easy to fall into the trap of covering for all eventualities, which can weigh down the narrative and complicate the story. By putting the work in to think through how the audience would engage with the story, and who they were, we were able to use techniques (such as the comparison to a six year old) that would offer them a context they could apply to their own lives without needing to ask for more information.

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