Far from the noise and spectacle of 2020, massive audiences were hungry for reliable information on their communities and Tracking COVID-19 in Illinois delivered it.
Our series of graphics and tools tracking Illinois’ COVID-19 numbers and policies made the information accessible for journalists, academics and Illinoisans making everyday choices in a pandemic. Our work is available for anyone to embed on their own platforms. Our focus on reporting-driven design met people where they were, served fundamental information needs and offered easy access to the underlying data we collected, some of which is the only public, stable record of its kind.
Tracking COVID-19 in Illinois reached a mass audience more efficiently and effectively than either government or legacy news outlets. It generated investigations, academic research, and community engagement.
We powered journalism. After we published our ZIP code map, WBEZ reporter Maria Zamudio reached out to obtain the case and testing data. We added a download button for anyone to use. Zamudio’s investigation of testing rates revealed systemic disparities and led to expanded testing in Latinx neighborhoods.
We reached the experts. Suburban civil servants used our historical data in their planning and in community meetings. The data has been used in at least four academic research projects that we know about.
“We were really happy to find the Illinois data set that you made available, and to be able to use it as an example of what could be possible if more local and state health departments would be willing to release their data with that degree of detail,” Jarvis Chen, a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health who used our data for a national analysis of the unequal racial and socio-economic burden of COVID-19, told us.
Most of all, the project was a hit — and in a global pandemic, reach matters. Our project has reached roughly 1.2 million users via our embeds on more than sixteen sites and native apps. The embeds have been viewed almost 2 million times. We suspect many more because our work is used in newsletters like Block Club Chicago and shared on social platforms.
The spread of the disease is a numbers game. If 1 in 100 of the people who saw our work decided to wear a mask or avoided an unnecessary trip even once, then our project helped avoid a few unnecessary deaths and many more hospitalizations.
This project represents the cutting edge of local journalism. The technology is sophisticated, reliable, and represents a great value. In almost a year, we’ve spent well under $200,000 to reach other a million people in multiple languages. Our competition did less with more resources.
Almost 14 percent of people in Illinois are native Spanish speakers. To cover the pandemic in Illinois, our work needed to be in both English and Spanish. But translation is often expensive, time-consuming, and technically challenging. We approached the challenge by prioritizing information design over traditional newswriting and with sophisticated use of accessible technology like Airtable.
Our Observable notebooks lowered the barrier to entry for collaboration and helped make translation possible. Because of our innovative use of this technology, reporters and editors without hard technical skills could make significant contributions.
The project was successful in the Observable ecosystem; our historical data notebook was one of the top ten most viral and viewed notebooks on the platform, and we presented our work to the community in May 2020.
Observable notebooks also meant we could easily share our data graphics with their powerful embedding system. Pasting a simple snippet of code worked for over 16 websites and native apps.
We use geolocation to effectively personalize the experience and meet our audience where they are. The unobtrusive, internet address-based location service makes our graphics more friendly and inviting.
We employed clever hacks like using a content delivery network to mirror the state’s data and avoid expensive servers early in the project. Now we use a “serverless” GraphQL database that grows and shrinks based on our traffic. Because of our work with these technologies, we’ve been advocates for data journalism in the broader tech world.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Like any project, we had issues with dirty and incorrect data, like funky ZIP codes. The state kept moving the data and changing the format. We used plenty of shoe leather to confirm and understand the data. But that’s why local organizations should invest in data reporters. We made the reporting calls and wrote the code.
The organizational backdrop of this project was stark and challenging. Like many others, we had to contend with the steadily deteriorating conditions faced in local news in the past year.
All three of the project’s originators have moved on to new jobs, and neither WBEZ or The Chicago Reporter (effectively closed since Sept. 2020) currently support it. Despite the troubles these venerable organizations are facing, they deserve recognition for launching and sustaining this project during a critical period.
Our continued persistence in spite of these conditions shows that our project is one of the best value propositions in journalism.
About 80% of our 1.2 million web users came from Illinois; we estimate that about 1 in 10 people in Illinois have seen our work. Hundreds of thousands in Spanish. Our donation campaigns did better when we talked about our commitment to meeting our audience where they are and open data. Our newsletters and social posts had better engagement when they included strong data visuals about the pandemic. Our work powered investigations, academic research, and community discourse.
What can others learn from this project?
The lessons from this project are systemic and organizational. Design matters In the internet world, journalists can skip writing multiple, disconnected stories about updates delivered at press conferences and instead consistently updated and accurate editorial products.That requires an investment in design, as different policies and numbers often require bespoke approaches. Our editorial products were built to be low-word (easily translatable) and fundamentally visual (easily shareable). Reach people where they are Our competition makes the user do a lot of work; we automatically locate you. In turn, we reached the most affected parts of the state. The highest traffic to our ZIP code map came from the ZIP codes most affected by COVID-19 and ZIP codes with the largest numbers of workers. Be there every day Our rock-solid technology and low operating costs means even now, thousands of people get clear, accurate information about COVID-19 in their community. And we created a real feedback loop with our community, including concerned citizens, health care experts, and local policymakers. Complement national news We offer a viable, local alternative to national coverage. As Amy Cesal said, “National news and counts are overwhelming. I just want to know what’s going on immediately near me. And the local news [sources] I read also use this one.” Practice radical generosity Over 16 publications used our data products. They included the Univision native app, the Chicago Sun-Times website, municipal government websites, rural public radio sites, and suburban mom-blogs. The graphics have been used by Block Club Chicago, The TRiiBE, and other local publications on their social feeds and in their email newsletters. The Illinois ZIP code-level data is perhaps the only historical public record of ZIP code-level COVID case data broken down by age and race demographics, and it goes back nearly to the start of the pandemic.