Data Visualization’s Breakthrough Moment in the COVID-19 Crisis

The discipline has made some important contributions over its 300-year history, but perhaps none more so than now

Ben Shneiderman
Nightingale
Published in
6 min readApr 30, 2020

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During the COVID-19 crisis, data visualization researchers and professionals rose to the challenge, delivering widely used tools for public explanations, pandemic modeling, and government policy-making. These interactive data visualizations inform the public and guide decision-makers to save lives. Spirited debates center on “flattening the curve,” which is a clear reference to visual representation of the rise and fall of case numbers.

Johns Hopkins University engineering professor Lauren Gardner and her team built a prominent visualization dashboard that shows current worldwide country data, down to the county or province level. Its evolving multiple windows show a great deal of data by way of clickable tabs for those who want more information. Newspapers, TV news programs, and bloggers feature this dashboard, giving it even wider usage.

Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center

The dramatic rise of data visualization could be traced to hardware factors such as widespread use of high-resolution large desktop displays tied to powerful computers. Other important trends are the increased availability of vast data resources, familiarity with data management software, and innovative web-based software that support rapid display and update of visual information.

Steven Drucker (Microsoft Research) says “the COVID crisis has generated a real need to understand and communicate vital information about data, models, and outcomes. We’ve needed it to persuade, understand current conditions, and predict future outcomes based on behaviors. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment where data, models, and hence visualization has been thrust so much into the center of everyday life.”

The 300-year-old strategy of drawing charts is usually traced back to William Playfair’s 1786 book with economic analyses of world trade patterns. An 1854 cholera epidemic in London provoked Dr. John Snow to draw a map showing deaths in the Broad Street area, revealing a concentration around the local water pump. When the pump handle was removed, deaths dropped, supporting the idea that cholera was…

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Ben Shneiderman
Nightingale

BEN SHNEIDERMAN (http://www.cs.umd.edu/~ben) is an Emeritus Distinguished Univof Maryland Professor in Computer Science, Member National Academy of Engineering