Why Masks Work Better Than You’d Think

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Minute Physics, aatishb.com

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 8 Sep 2020

Credit: Aatish Bhatia, Henry Reich

Project description:

This is an interactive article & companion YouTube video [1,2] explaining the counter-intuitive math behind how masks protect people in communities. Using interactives and simple visuals, we explain how even partially effective masks confer more protection to a community than you might intuitively expect (especially when many people wear them). We created interactives where readers can understand interactions in networks, vary mask usage and mask effectiveness, and calculate & visualize the benefit that masks provide a community. Both our video and our interactive essay can be viewed independently, and were designed to complement each other and reach parallel audiences.

Impact reached:

Our video trended on YouTube and was viewed over 1 million times. Our interactive essay has been viewed by a large international audience, and was shared on Twitter by epidemiologists, science communicators, data journalists, health journalists, the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute,  and the Washington Department of Health. It was also shortlisted as a finalist in Flowing Data’s Best Data Visualization Projects of 2020 [5].

Aatish created a guide to contributing translations [4], and consequently our work has been translated into 14 languages to date by a volunteer team of international open-source contributors [4], including many first-time GitHub contributors. It was translated to Czech for a popular science & technology website [6], where it reached 100,000 readers in 2 days.

Aatish went on to collaborate with OpenSciEd, an organization creating freely available science educational materials for US middle schools, and adapted the interactives for use in middle school STEM classrooms [3]. It is currently being piloted with ~40 middle school teachers, with the goal of publishing these teaching materials for use in classrooms by the summer.


Techniques/technologies used:

We created an animated YouTube video explaining the math behind how masks multiply protection using standard animation tools. We also created an interactive essay using custom JavaScript, HTML, & CSS, and using the p5.js, plotly.js, and vue.js libraries for canvas animations, graphing, and interactivity, respectively. Finally, we created a Python code notebook [7] outlining the mathematical ideas underlying the essay for those with a math background who want to dive in deeper, which included plots and simulations of the mathematical model underlying the essay.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The greatest challenge was to create a visual language that allowed us to explain the key mathematical ideas without resorting to equations. Rather than simply *telling* people the outcome of the mathematical models, it was important to us that we convey a genuine understanding of the math through the visuals and interactives.

We first developed a mathematical model to calculate the effect of a bidirectionally effective mask on controlling an epidemic [7]. We then worked to integrate this into the video & essay in a manner that is jargon-free, compelling, and understable to a general audience, largely by relying on carefully chosen visuals, animation, and interactives to convey understanding. We incorporated feedback from top scientific experts including Manu Prakash, David Fisman, and Monica Gandhi.

What can others learn from this project?

They can learn about how to break down a complex topic and distill research in a manner that is compelling, clear, and easy to read. They can learn about how to integrate visuals and interactives into an explanation. They can learn about how to use video and interactive explanations in parallel. We have open-sourced the code for our article under the MIT license [4], and shared the text under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, allowing others to directly learn from and adapt this work to their purposes.

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