Final texts

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer, for NYT Opinion, approached the one-million mark for Covid deaths with text messages. The piece starts on February 29, 2020, when the first person died because of Covid. The count to 1 million begins, and a recurring ticker reminds you of the increase over time. Thirteen text message threads between someone who died and a person who cared remind you that the numbers are real.

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Lives cut short by Covid

Alyssa Fowers and Leslie Shapiro, for The Washington Post, used the stories of 114 individuals to show weekly Covid deaths. Each story is “cut short”, making the length of each fragment match counts for the corresponding week.

My brain was slightly confused by the metaphor at first. The lower the count, the more an individual’s story is cut short, but my intuition expected that more deaths would mean stories were cut short more.

That said, the sentiment is in the right place. Maybe the stories didn’t need to be tied to weekly counts? I’m imagining something closer to Periscopic’s piece from 2013 on lives cut short by guns.

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Behind the million

Sergio Peçanha and Yan Wu, for The Washington Post, used a combination unit chart with individual icons to represent the scale and weight of the near million Covid deaths in the United States.

Compare this with NYT’s particle-based charts and Axios’ scaled squares. It’s kind of in between the two in level of abstraction, but all three carry similar messages, with a focus on the one-million mark.

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Reaching 1 million deaths

The New York Times narrated the path to one million Covid deaths in the United States. They start with one million dots, each one representing a death. As you read, the dots arrange into trends and significant events over these past years.

As we have talked about before, it’s impossible to communicate the true weight of a single death, much less a million, but the individual dots provide a visual foundation to better understand abstract trends.

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Scale of one million deaths

The United States is about to reach one million confirmed Covid deaths, or already passed the mark if you consider excess deaths. There’s no way to truly feel that number, but Axios visualized the scale, with comparisons against city populations and historical events.

A diamond shape represents counts, and as you scroll, shapes fill the screen until you only see the tips. The shapes overflow beyond what we can or want to understand. The time series line on the bottom shows cumulative deaths over time, leading towards the one-million mark.

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Lessons learned from making covid dashboards

For Nature, Lynne Peeples spoke to the people behind many of the popular covid dashboards and the lessons learned:

Among the shared themes for the dashboards were simplicity and clarity. Whether you are producing visuals and analytical tools for policymakers or for the public, Blauer says, the same rules of thumb apply. “Don’t overcomplicate your visualization, make the conclusions as clear as possible, and speak in the most basic of plain-language terms,” she says.

Yet, as other data scientists point out, presenting data simply might not be enough to ensure viewers get the message. For one thing, attention to detail matters. Ritchie recalls how she and her team spent hours focused on the titles and subtitles of charts, “because that is ultimately what most people will look at”. And in those titles and subtitles, the analysts made sure to specify ‘confirmed’ deaths or ‘confirmed’ cases. “An emphasis on ‘confirmed’ is really important because we know that it’s an underestimate of the total,” says Ritchie. “It might seem very basic, but it’s really crucial to how you understand the data and the scale of the pandemic.”

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Potential coronavirus mutations

For NYT Opinion, researchers Sarah Cobey, Jesse Bloom, and Tyler Starr, along with NYT graphics editor Nathaniel Lash, discuss the potential mutations for the coronavirus. The accompanying graphic zooms in on the amino acids that allow the virus infect human cells. Scroll to see the mutations in the Delta variant and Omicron, and then keep going to see where else we might be headed.

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Partisan excess deaths

Excess deaths is the difference between expected deaths based on historical data and actual total deaths. It’s an estimate for how many people really died from covid. For Axios, Will Chase and Caitlin Owens charted excess deaths for Republican-leaning states compared against Democratic-leaning states, between March 2020 and March 2022.

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Increasing mortality baseline

There was a time not that long ago when a hundred covid deaths seemed like a lot, but now the United States is getting closer to one million deaths with over a thousand deaths per day. The country is unmasking and re-opening. For The Atlantic, Ed Yong discusses the shifting baseline and our perception of these big numbers:

The United States reported more deaths from COVID-19 last Friday than deaths from Hurricane Katrina, more on any two recent weekdays than deaths during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more last month than deaths from flu in a bad season, and more in two years than deaths from HIV during the four decades of the AIDS epidemic. At least 953,000 Americans have died from COVID, and the true toll is likely even higher because many deaths went uncounted. COVID is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer, which are both catchall terms for many distinct diseases. The sheer scale of the tragedy strains the moral imagination. On May 24, 2020, as the United States passed 100,000 recorded deaths, The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead, describing their loss as “incalculable.” Now the nation hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million. What is 10 times incalculable?

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Percentage breakdowns of pandemic life

To broadly show how people have lived in the U.S. during these past two years, The Washington Post shows percentages for various questions, such as “Have you had long covid?” and “Did you work from home?” But instead of using something like pie charts, they used people icons in illustrated unit charts.

In the above, each person represents a percentage point. There’s also a multiple-choice element to the piece, which helps readers relate personally, but I think it’s mostly there as a way to reveal the full answer breakdowns.

Projects like this one always remind me of World of 100.

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