Information Design Round-Up: COVID-19 Edition

A curation of information design and dataviz that aids in the public understanding of COVID-19

Courtney Marchese
Nov 23, 2020 · 11 min read
Credit (top-left to bot-right): Reuters, Periscopic, Reuters, Financial Times, New York Times, Pentagram

This post is the second in a series dedicated to my favorite information design and data visualization focused on a particular topic, in this case, COVID-19. As in my other posts, “favorites” tend to be examples that demonstrate thoughtful data analysis, engaging visualization methods, a cohesive narrative, and a seamless user experience.

My first book Information Design for the Common Good (Bloomsbury), is officially into design and production mode, and I’m thrilled to have time to devote to blogs and articles finally. Today’s post is the second in a series dedicated to favorite information design and data visualization. All posts will focus on a particular topic, in this case, COVID-19. The global coronavirus pandemic has inspired numerous efforts to understand every angle of its prevalence, with that angle shifting over time as we begin to understand parts of the virus. Here are some of the amazing visuals that emerged to aid public understanding of COVID-19.

The first set of links is presented in chronological order of publication, demonstrating the evolving understanding of the virus and shifting focus of media narrative. The second grouping of links represents some great overview data examples updated frequently as new information becomes available.

Washington Post, Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’
Washington Post, Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’
Credit: Washington Post

1.Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve’ (March 14th, 2020), The Washington Post, Harry Stevens

Now the most viewed Washington Post story EVER, Harry Stevens’ piece focuses on understanding what were new concepts to the general public. Flattening the curve, lockdown, social distancing, quarantine, and isolation were all somewhat abstract ideas as countries began to mandate stay-at-home orders and mask-wearing. Stevens effectively shows simulated environments where circles (people) randomly interact with their surroundings without getting into the nitty-gritty of case numbers or specific infection rates. A simple color system shows healthy, infected, and recovered members of different scenarios within the simulated community. Scenarios include: a free-for-all, attempted quarantine, moderate distancing, and extensive distancing. The dots’ interaction is also tracked as a graph in real-time, clearly demonstrating to the viewer the difference in outcomes. As a piece created early in the pandemic, it was precisely the appropriate information to be sharing with an audience trying to understand how their behaviors impact the spread of the virus with very little understanding of the nuances of the virus. The simple simulation showcases important public health concepts, while acknowledging the sizable data gaps around how COVID itself actually spreads and the unknown nuances of the virus.

NYTimes, How the Virus Got Out
NYTimes, How the Virus Got Out
Credit: The New York Times

2. How the Virus Got Out (March 22nd, 2020), The New York Times, Jin Wu, Weiyi Cai, Derek Watkins, and James Glanz

A week later, NYTimes published an interactive story that coincidentally also uses dots to show disease spread. As the story states in the beginning, “It seems simple: Stop travel, stop the virus from spreading around the world.” By visualizing how, when, and where people moved geographically, the story explains clearly and visually why travel restrictions had no chance of stopped COVID-19’s spread. By SEEING the large city and transportation hub of Wuhan, China, along with travel volume, you immediately get a sense of how vulnerable the setting is for disease spread. Multi-day incubation periods and high infection rates combined with varying symptom severity (if any) and holiday travel clearly show how the virus could spread quickly. Local outbreaks throughout China and continued international travel helped transport coronavirus to many large cities worldwide, including New York, Sydney, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Seattle. The NYTimes story uses data visuals of travel patterns combined with travel restrictions to show how global governments were usually a step too late in their efforts. As the virus spread, locations continuously stopped travel AFTER the virus had already begun spreading locally.

COVID-19 Charts by Pentagram
COVID-19 Charts by Pentagram
Credit: Pentagram

3.COVID-19 Charts (April 2020), Pentagram, Giorgia Lupi

Created in April of 2020, Giorgia Lupi and her team at Pentagram tackled a hypothetical redesign of New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefing graphics. The briefings represent the shutdown peak and a desperate need to flatten the curve to ease the strain on the healthcare system. While Governor Cuomo offered detailed numbers on cases, hospitalization, and lives lost, the numbers lacked context and humanization. Lupi’s Summary graphic is particularly useful for combining numbers that previously were presented separately like deaths, hospitalizations, and r-naught. Isolated by individual dataset, it is hard to grasp what exactly the data are telling us. However, shown together, viewers can begin to see connections. Public health and policy graphics are designed to inform the public and possibly influence individual prevention decisions, thus benefiting from a human-centric approach that Lupi champions.

Reuters, How coronavirus hitched a ride through China
Reuters, How coronavirus hitched a ride through China
Credit: Reuters

4.How coronavirus hitched a ride through China (April 16th, 2020), Reuters

In mid-April of 2020, Reuters published a story that followed COVID-19’s spread around China, covering some of the same data incorporated into the beginning of the NYTimes story mentioned above, but in a completely different way. The story is a thoughtful integration of timeline information, maps, and flowcharts with icons to show COVID-19 spread across people, and vignettes with illustrations of specific people (or characters in the story) traveling the country. Despite the variety of visual forms, the information is easy to follow with a minimalist style and small color palette of black, white, red, and a little tan. The narrative style achieves an impressive level of viewer engagement, understanding, and investment.

Reuters, Tracing COVID-19
Reuters, Tracing COVID-19
Credit: Reuters

5.Tracing COVID-19 (April 28, 2020), Reuters

Less than two weeks later, the Reuters graphics team again published a story about the spread of COVID-19, this time focusing on technology as a means to conduct contact tracing. While the idea of tracing people’s whereabouts through an app or mass surveillance can sound quite invasive, the story walks through a visual explanation of exactly how the technology works. After reading the story (with minimal text and excellent use of imagery), you can quickly understand how COVID-19 and future outbreaks can be traced and the difference between using an app and mass surveillance.

Scientific American, Virus mutations reveal how COVID really spread
Scientific American, Virus mutations reveal how COVID really spread
Credit: Scientific American

6.Virus Mutations Reveal How COVID-19 Really Spread (June 1st, 2020), Scientific American, graphic by Martin Krzywinski

Martin Krzywinski created a piece for Scientific American examining the spread of COVID-19 from a genomic sequencing perspective. The data used for the feature are from Nextstrain, a massive collection of openly-shared genetic data from research groups worldwide. We can see patterns and narratives emerge by visualizing these genetic strains, including on the Grand Princess cruise ship outbreak, and those in the United States, Iran, and Italy. Mapping the spread suggests that the virus has displayed minimal mutations. As noted in the article, “Mapping the spread also substantiates actions that could have best mitigated it: faster, wider testing in China; earlier, stricter global travel bans and isolation of infected people; and more immediate social distancing worldwide.”

National Geographic, How will we distribute a COVID vaccine?
National Geographic, How will we distribute a COVID vaccine?
Credit: National Geographic

8.How will we distribute a COVID-19 vaccine? Here’s one potential path. (September 29th, 2020), National Geographic, Diana Marques and Alexander Stegmaier

Much buzz has circulated in the media about the global race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. National Geographic’s feature from September 29th, 2020, gives an overview of where we stand in the vaccine development process. That process starts with SARS and MERS research to help guide scientists, to trials, production, and distribution. The feature also offers expert estimates as to how many dosages would be needed globally and how many people would need the vaccine to slow the virus’s spread.

The New York Times, Tracing the White House coronavirus outbreak
The New York Times, Tracing the White House coronavirus outbreak
Credit: New York Times

9.Tracking the White House Coronavirus Outbreak (October 6th, 2020), The New York Times

After months of downplaying the virus, misleading the public, and ignoring public health guidelines, President Trump announced that he was positive for COVID-19 on October 2nd. The New York Times story attempts to assemble a timeline of people, places, and events in the days leading up to and following the announcement. With little public transparency from Washington, NYTimes hypothesized who may have been infected — when, and where — based on information gathering. The story effectively takes the breadcrumbs of information that trickled out of the White House and provides chronology and context to the outbreak.

TULP interactive, COVID-19 spreading rate
TULP interactive, COVID-19 spreading rate
Credit: TULP interactive

10.COVID-19 Spreading Rates (September 2020), TULP interactive

TULP interactive takes a different spin on the global COVID-19 data dashboard by simulating the average rate of newly reported cases from the past week. Users get a sense how quickly the global case count is climbing while staying on the webpage and observing the range of rates from country to country. Intuitive colors aid an overview that transitions from zero cases (shown in gray upon opening the page) to once a case is estimated to be reported (with the country turning red and tallying beginning). Countries with no new cases in the past week remain blue. The use of sound in the form of a chime effect helps the user process the cases increasing in the countries out of view. The timing of this website’s release was also impactful in that the world was already over nine months into the pandemic, with cases persisting. With the global case count on the rise, this site is a reminder that we are still in the thick of the worldwide crisis.

Periscopic, Lifelines
Periscopic, Lifelines
Lifelines, by Periscopic

11.Lifelines (October 2020), Periscopic

Periscopic consistently produces some of my favorite work — it is unique, engaging, beautifully designed, and brings a true elegance to complex data. Be warned that Lifelines is a particularly powerful piece that explores victims of COVID-19 beyond those directly infected. Deaths of despair from unemployment, isolation, and substance abuse are projected to also have devastating effects in 2020–2029, but those effects are preventable if provided with adequate support structures. Beyond presenting data on past, present, and projected future deaths of despair, Lifelines allows the user to interact by adjusting levels of mental health care, employment status, and social connection. As the interactive sliders are adjusted towards better or worse conditions, photographs of those lost lightly flash in the background as their “orb” sinks below the waterline. While the majority of the piece is emotional, it starts with a clear warning about potentially triggering themes and ends with a number of ways to help prevent tragedy and professional resources.

Financial Times, COVID-19 global crisis in data
Financial Times, COVID-19 global crisis in data
COVID-19: The Global Crisis in Data, by Financial Times

12.COVID-19: The Global Crisis in Data (October 18, 2020), Financial Times

The Financial Times has one of the most comprehensive data dashboards that we have seen throughout the pandemic, but their October 18th feature is perhaps a more accessible and narrative version of their work, neatly tying their numerous data-driven angles together. The aforementioned dashboard is more exploratory in nature, demanding a certain level of understanding, or at least interest, in data and drawing your own conclusions. However, the feature story represents an explanatory level of comprehension several months later — never loosing sight of the global death toll, but also presenting the evolving impact that people and governments around the world have experienced. As the Financial Times states, “data has been the only way to truly understand the scale and impact of COVID-19…Individually, each tells a small, yet important, part of the story. Collectively, they help explain the virus’s enormous death toll — and why its impact will last for years to come.” While this specific feature uses data as the dominant story-telling device, it should be noted that this is part two of a six-part series by the Financial Times that helps paint a fuller picture of the complex multi-dimensional crisis.

There have been numerous efforts to update COVID-19 case statistics in dashboards and informational resources continuously. These are five of my favorite general COVID-19 resources (in no particular order) that have been updated to reflect the latest available information.

Reuter, Where US coronavirus cases are rising and falling
Reuter, Where US coronavirus cases are rising and falling
Credit: Reuters

1.Where US Coronavirus Cases are Rising and Falling, Reuters

The Reuters team created a simple and elegant overview of COVID-19 data for the United States, taking weekly data from March 1st to the present. The maps’ views allow for a clear picture of overall trends and key takeaways with tooltips for detail. The tables with sparklines offer valuable additional contextual data. My favorite section of the page shows weekly tests for 100,000 people, with testing trends and positivity rates as a fascinating extra layer of information.

Financial Times coronavirus tracker
Financial Times coronavirus tracker
Credit: Financial Times

2.Financial Times Coronavirus Tracker

For the data geeks looking to dig into the nitty-gritty of global data, the Financial Times dashboard offers numerous ways to examine COVID-19 data. Users can compare countries or up to six of the United States. Additional options include looking at deaths versus cases, new versus cumulative, raw case numbers versus per million, and more.

Johns Hopkins COVID resource dashboard
Johns Hopkins COVID resource dashboard
Credit: Johns Hopkins Resource Center

3.Johns Hopkins Resource Center

Johns Hopkins has a massive Coronavirus Resource Center with many outstanding graphics to help make research data more accessible, all with clear instructions on how to read the graphics. Their page on the impact of opening and closing decisions by the state is particularly interesting. Considering the correlation between policy and COVID-19 cases and deaths gives a greater understanding of social distancing measures.

Timeline of WHO COVID-19 response
Timeline of WHO COVID-19 response
Credit: WHO

4.Timeline of WHO COVID-19 Response

WHO’s timeline is a seemingly simple, but hugely effective, look at layers of global information spanning back to December 31st of 2019. In one horizontally scrolling timeline, WHO accounts for case counts by worldwide region and type of action taken (categorized as information, science, leadership, advice, response, or resourcing). Key actions are indicated with a star, and all actions link out to official statements, news releases, and guidelines. For users primarily familiar with case data, the timeline’s information gives an important global context.

I hope you enjoyed this roundup of COVID-19 information design from around the web. What awesome designs out there did I miss? Share some favorites (from this list or elsewhere) below!

Courtney Marchese is an award-winning designer and professor with over a decade of professional experience specializing in data visualization, user experience design, and design research. Her forthcoming book from Bloomsbury Press, Information Design for the Common Good, explores the critical role of information design and data visualization related to the visual explanation of some of today’s most challenging human-centered concerns, including social, political, environmental, and global health issues.

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