We usually rely on “big data” to present the scale of plastic abuse but ignore its side effect that people may have difficulty in connecting it to their daily life. This project stepped outside of that framework and took the experiential journalism approach instead. Two team members volunteered to document their daily use of plastic products over 14 days. By analyzing and visualizing the personal “small data,” we brought the broad concept of plastic overuse into sharper focus, making it easier for the public to link their daily lives to this serious environmental issue.
The most immediate impact is that one of the project members, who is very addicted to coffee (and created a lot of plastic waste by using disposable coffee cups), bought himself a reusable coffee cup after the project. And this is indeed the original intent of our project! We sincerely hope that by presenting the personal data accumulated from individuals’ daily use of plastic items, people would leave their numbness behind, raise their awareness of the impact of their lifestyles on the environment, and ultimately make behavioral changes in everyday life. Though we can’t track the adjustments made by our readers, the progress of our teammate has already displayed the potential power of this project.
In addition, this project has been recognized by China’s data journalism industry, winning the Bronze Award of “Best Mobile Interactive” and the “Public Regard Awards – Moving Towards Carbon Neutrality” in China Data Content Competition 2021.
D3.js: to visualize the data of 14-day plastic usage.
GSAP: to produce rich animation effects by simply configuring this tool, which simplifies the animation control and precise time management of the whole project, and optimizes the performance of large batches of complex animations.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The most tricky part is to get the audience to relate their daily lives to the problem of plastic abuse. When conducting the 14-day experiment, we kept two records, one with photos of all the plastic products used, and the other with data records of plastic usage recorded in an excel spreadsheet. We could have used the excel data to generate charts to inform readers of our conclusions, but this approach was too rigid and didactic to be empathetic. Our final approach was to introduce the two participants of the experiment first, enabling the audience to see the “humans” in the project; then we showed the photos of all the plastic items so that people can see the “physical look” of the data; after that, we replaced the photos with charts to present our findings from the 14-day experiment, which balanced the fluidity of the user experience with the clarity of the conclusions.
On the technical side, the biggest problem was the abnormal rendering of the browser page caused by thousands of dom nodes running animations simultaneously. So we used some “smokescreen” in switching between the photos and the graphs. We reduced the number of dom nodes without sacrificing the image effect and improved the rendering efficiency of web pages.
We’d also like to mention the “Easter eggs” reserved at the end of the project: the two participants were invited to imagine the situation that if they’d be given a second chance to start the project all over again, which of the disposable plastic items they would consciously reduce using, and the specific dilemmas they might encounter during the process. Besides that, we also demonstrated their personal feelings before and after participating in the project in the form of a webcomic.
What can others learn from this project?
In an age flooded with data, how data is selected and presented can greatly influence the impact of reporting. For environmental issues, the ultimate goal of media coverage is usually to raise people’s awareness and motivate them to take action. Therefore, it is worth considering how to establish a connection between individuals and environmental issues.
This project goes beyond the big data narrative and makes full use of data gathered from individuals’ daily lives to uncover the often-overlooked humanity hidden in the data. This may provide new ideas for other journalists in their future reporting.