Hey, Data Designers: Where are the COVID-19 Mobile Dashboards?

This emergency offers an important window into data design’s role in supporting a better-informed public with more transparent information, but … where is the mobile design?

matteo moretti
Mar 29, 2020 · 7 min read

<provocation mode on>

Thanks to COVID-19, it seems many chickens are coming home to roost. A global audience is realizing the fragility of our economic system, the importance of human relations in our daily life, and the value and the quality of the ways we spend our time. We can change our routine, our life, and our socioeconomic system (maybe next time let’s act before the arrival of a pandemic 😅). Despite the brutality of the virus’s approach 🦠, the emergency situation is forcing us to reflect on what is really necessary (and what is not) in our daily life — and that’s nothing compared to the many people worldwide living in more extreme and tough conditions than ours.

Given the dramatic situation that we are in, I have to admit I’m really fascinated by this moment: it is challenging our lives, beliefs, and society. Looking at my country, in many Italian cities we now have wonderful blue skies, less polluted air, and clear water in the rivers, which are all unintended consequences of the economic hiatus imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But we also had an incredible infodemic” — especially at the beginning of the crisis. (To say nothing of ridiculous fake news like the return of dolphins in Venice—have they ever been there?) The main national media outlets relied on a dangerous sensationalist approach (and sometimes unverified news), causing unnecessary panic and unsafe behaviours in much of the population.

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Dolphins in Venice 🤦‍♂, death, fear, and viruses in the main national newspapers 😱.

Information, what a mess 🙈

At the same time, many data people started publishing maps and dashboards on the COVID-19 that were supposed to be useful. As readers, we were rapidly overwhelmed by a huge amount of visual content aimed to explain the situation through data.

All this enthusiasm and activation are great, but given the delicacy of the situation, as designers, we should reflect twice before posting new visuals, as noted by Amanda Makulec. Indeed, many of the maps are misleading, with bubbles positioned in the centre of the country (a la Microsoft, see also) or on the principal city of a region, just because “the software works this way.” Let’s not even mention the colour scales 🙈.

Currently, it is very difficult to navigate maps on mobile, with little available space to pinch, move, and touch. Since the beginning, I wasn’t really convinced by the usefulness of maps, especially on mobile. They are supposed to work as a geographical piece of information as well as a way to discover data of a specific region; a function almost impossible on mobile, which forces people to pinch, pinch, pinch, and pinch again until they are able to touch the right spot. So, no map.

The main problem is that few dashboards are designed for smaller devices. One of the contemporary ways we approach digital design is through a mind-set of designing ‘mobile-first.’ It implies that the design process focuses first on the design for smartphones, so that spaces, sizes, fonts, etc. fit the screen size and also accounts for the lack of a mouse cursor (no hover effects) and finger-sized buttons. Then, after the small screen is completed, the design focuses on optimizing for bigger resolutions.

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Some current Covid-19 dashboards when browsed through a smartphone.

Where are the COVID-19 Mobile Dashboards?

Just two weeks ago, I was laying on my sofa trying to understand what was going on in the world outside my apartment by seeking data through my smartphone. Are the infections increasing or decreasing in Italy and Europe? How is the German situation evolving?

… Nothing! Thirty minutes of my time wasted, trying to understand data through badly designed dashboards impossible to access on mobile.

Please, don’t judge me as a snob designer that pretends to live in a nicely designed world. I’m only asking that on such a tough and serious topic, the information be clear and accessible especially on the most-used devices; not only for the sake of informing citizens, but to support the work of journalists, decision-makers, administrators, and politicians in such a stressful period. We are in 2020, the majority of the people in the world browse the internet through a smartphone! How can all of these badly designed dashboards exist?

Our Contribution: CoviDash

The Coronavirus mobile-first open-source dashboard

I was so disappointed by the situation that I started downloading the Italian official data on the COVID-19 and started designing a simple and clear dashboard for mobile (no map this time 😁). A couple of hours later, once the mockup was quite presentable, I contacted my business partner at Sheldon.studio, Daniel Rampanelli, who is an incredible developer, and then I called Riccardo Olocco, a very good friend of mine who founded one of the most serious Italian type foundries, CAST foundry. As soon as I told them: “What about working together to a simple dashboard on COVID-19 that works on mobile??” They both immediately answered: “Yes, count me in!”

We worked on nights and weekends, obviously without meeting each other due to the social distancing. So let me introduce CoviDash: it is our first release, and we decided to publish it as open-source so it can be adopted and improved by everybody. It already supports multiple languages, so other people from other countries, cities, institutions, companies, newspapers, journalists, could adopt and translate it. It is available from the Sheldon.studio GitHub repository. After the rush, probably we will improve it, too, we still have a couple of features to add.

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CoviDash!

We tried to put ourselves in people's shoes — what would they expect in a dashboard? The dashboard opens with what Tufte calls small multiples: tiny and multiple series of similar charts, which share the same scale to allow quick-comparison. In our case, the three small multiples return a broader time span on the virus data, and hopefully next weeks they will show us the flattening of the curve 🤞. Then, we thought “numbers are important as well,” so we present first the total number, then the daily delta of the infections, the recovers and the deaths, on the national level. Then, as soon as people scroll, the same small-multiple lines are represented in a bigger size, in a single chart, followed later by the regional data, through the numbers and also encoded in a vertical histogram.

Covidash closes with a series of easy-to-touch region names that refresh the same layout with regional data, instead of national.

Why you should use it? If you belong to the 60% of people that use a smartphone to browse the internet every day or if you just need clear and accessible data at a glance, Covidash is probably for you. Covidash is not a perfect dashboard; we think there are many margins for improvement, and it would be great if you could contribute or just use it, and tell us what you think. We would love for you to help us make it better for your own needs and others. We conceived CoviDash as a digital common, so the community can benefit from it as well as taking care of it, for the sake of better information, for the wealth of the whole community.

I hope that you will consider my outburst as a provocation to start a discussion on what we could do, together: This article and our Covidash are meant as a call to all those concerned designers that would give a contribution worldwide, creating tools to support the work of journalists, activists, and citizens to provide better and more accessible information during the COVID-19 emergency. There are many ways you can act, from visualization to data cleaning and collection, to creating networks and workgroups to collaborate and share, to writing code to support designers, and spreading accurate information to reach a wider audience and increase understanding. It’s time to act together and responsibly, for the sake of more transparent and widespread information and for the wellbeing of our communities, since as Seneca wrote: “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”

</provocation mode off>

You can read more Nightingale coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic here.

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matteo moretti

Written by

Award-winning designer, co-founder of Sheldon.studio, I design immersive, interactive, participatory, informative experiences. Then I write & talk about them.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

matteo moretti

Written by

Award-winning designer, co-founder of Sheldon.studio, I design immersive, interactive, participatory, informative experiences. Then I write & talk about them.

Nightingale

The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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