What you’d spend to prevent climate change — and what you could get with your money

Category: Best visualization (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: Australia

Organisation: ABC News (Australia)

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 17/12/2019

Credit: Nick Kilvert (reporter), Tim Leslie (digital producer), Annika Blau (digital producer), Colin Gourlay (developer), Simon Elvery (developer), Cristen Tilley (editor), Jonathan Webb (editor)

Project description:

The ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey asked 54,000 Australians about their lives and attitudes in one of the largest surveys of its type. One question was how much more Australians would personally spend each year to help prevent climate change. When we added together their responses we had a kitty of around $4 billion — this story visualises different ways we could spend that money and transform Australia, as mapped out by four experts. Using a swarm of dots to represent the funds, we created a digestible, highly visual piece that was empowering for the audience.

Impact reached:

The story was read by three quarters of a million Australians and we were inundated with requests from the audience as to how they could contribute to or start a climate fund.

Many responses were from financially stretched Australians who were nonetheless inspired to help:

“I am on a disability pension and I will find $200 to contribute. Can these people mentioned in your article get this happening? Can they organise a summit, or a round-table, or something to start this discussion in very serious ways. The government isn’t going to do it. So, can we bypass them and get Australians to take back ownership of this country and help save this planet.”

The piece was also praised by the audience for its design:

“The most beautifully designed graphic and text. I think it’s by far the best experience I’ve ever had reading content on a mobile device. Whoever designed that has absolutely nailed it! The way the text and graphics interact while scrolling down is sumptuous—simple, beautiful, informative. Just outstanding design!”

Several Australians told us that after reading our piece they were looking into the practicalities of setting up a fund like this that would operate independently of government.

Techniques/technologies used:

The Australia Talks National Survey of 54,000 Australians was an epic undertaking, two years in the making, conducted in conjunction with social scientists and data scientists at Vox Pop Labs. We started by crowd-sourcing areas of concern for Australians through focus groups and interviews with thousands of Australians from across the political and sociodemographic spectrum. With an academic advisory panel, we then designed over 500 questions and statements that tested the attitudes and behaviours of Australians. After 18 months of crowd-sourcing and survey design, these 500 questions were then put to 54,000 Australians in July 2019. We spent a month in August analysing the data with help from data journalists at ABC and Vox Pop Labs’ data analysts. 

We then commissioned more than 100 pieces of broadcast and digital content based on the data from content teams across the ABC that were distributed across all platforms. The data told us climate change was a priority for Australians so we decided to make a high-end digital piece using the question from the survey about what Australians would personally spend on climate mitigation.

Developers Simon Elvery and Colin Gourlay coded the story’s interactions from scratch using D3. They used Web Workers to perform the large amounts of computation required for the graphics layout, which allowed us to render smooth visual updates as readers scrolled through the story. A challenge was making the swarms of dots change shape while retaining relative size to each other. Another was coding the swarms to best fit the displays on mobile and desktop, across variations in individual users’ devices. We achieved both these things, and the piece was served to substantial audiences both on our own platforms and on third-party apps (eg. Facebook, Apple News).

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of this project was getting the copy to work with the graphics. Keeping the central construct of the $4 billion kitty throughout the piece was challenging — for example, we couldn’t represent amounts of money below $4 million as they would be less than one dot in size. We certainly couldn’t represent the amounts that people were willing to spend personally (eg. the $200 average).

It was also challenging to keep the graphics from becoming too ‘samey’ while sticking to the central concept so the piece would be visually coherent. For this reason, Colin Gourlay developed the ability for the clusters to take a different shape (eg. the sun, a battery). However it was hard to gauge the size of clusters once they were in a different shape to the circular kitty we were used to seeing. It took time to figure out how to make the dots fill a shape that was scaled to accurately represent its volume relative to other clusters.

It was also challenging to code the transitions from one big cluster to smaller clusters, as money was allocated to different things. We spent a month refining the coding and layout of this story, which was fiddly and time-consuming work. While the final product looks simple, it took a lot of revision to get there. As is so often the case with data journalism, achieving a simple and easy-to-understand final product takes significant work behind the scenes.

What can others learn from this project?

Doing something about climate change is often framed as a massive challenge that humanity has yet to solve. This sort of thinking can give audiences a sense of powerlessness. We wanted to create a piece of content that showed that not only do solutions exist, but also there is a strong desire from the public to be a part of these solutions. By focusing on solutions, we turned climate change from a topic that readers are reluctant to engage with into one they found accessible and even empowering.

This story also shows the power of relating an abstract and insurmountable issue like climate change to people’s daily lives. By breaking it down to a figure — $200 — that felt tangible to people, climate action became something relatable and non-threatening. In Australia, conservative politicians and media have framed climate action as vastly expensive and “economy wrecking”. This piece countered this narrative by showing how a little bit can go a long way.

This story came out of the Australia Talks National Survey, which is dialogue journalism at its best. The survey was an epic listening exercise, one of the largest surveys of its type ever conducted. From the survey, we learnt that climate change was the most commonly cited problem facing Australians personally. This gave us the impetus to commission a range of top-tier digital stories on this subject.

This piece was an attempt to reflect Australians’ attitudes back to them. Rather than saying “you must do more to prevent climate change” in a finger-wagging fashion, we said “here’s what you’ve told us you want to do”. This two-way, listening-and-learning approach gave the piece a licence to propose solutions.

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