It’s not often I encounter a piece of data journalism which solves a common problem in the field – and it’s even rarer to find a piece of work which tackles two.
But that’s just what lean data journalism Ampp3d did last week when it published a piece of visualisation on the deaths of construction workers in Qatar.
The two problems? Creating impact on mobile – and making big numbers meaningful.
1,200 deaths is a statistic
In 2010 I wrote about this problem in relation to the Wikileaks cables. Why was it that 15,000 extra estimated civilian deaths did not generate the same impact or response as stories about individual embarrassments?
The bigger question was: how can we write about large numbers of deaths without it turning into an abstract statistic, with no impact?
Ampp3d’s piece, I believe, is an exemplar of how to do just that through sport.
How do we bring those 1200 anonymous bodies to life? One by one, alongside the World Cup squads being announced for 2014 as the article is published:
Because we see a team of football players as a group of individuals, the effect is transferred onto the fatalities.
Taken in groups of 23, it’s possible to go through all 1,200 while still getting a feel for the human tragedy within the big numbers.
But it’s on mobile where the story has real impact – and that’s the second problem Ampp3d tackle…
Designing data journalism for mobile and social
When viewed on a desktop computer, the squads sit side by side – as shown above.
But Ampp3d work on the principle that most users will be viewing on mobile devices. And on a phone this story is striking, as teams now alternate with deaths:
The result is percussive: 23 players, 23 dead workers; 23 players, 23 dead workers: 23. 23. 23. 23.
By the time we reach the USA team, after 32 repetitions of this pattern, we are punch drunk. Then comes the knockout:
…The scrolling for this part goes on and on and on. It’s the physicality of the experience which is fascinating: moving your finger or thumb down and down and down as you try to reach the end of these deaths. Just try it: view this on a mobile phone now.
This is an experience very different to print, or broadcast, or even desktop web design.
And it demonstrates that you can create impact on mobile; that a distracted audience can still be compelled to stop and scroll, and scroll, and scroll. And share.
You can debate the accuracy of the text or the animated gif at the top of the piece (as many did on Twitter), or the choice of strip designs, or the non-neutral stance, but those two points: creating impact on mobile, and humanising large numbers of deaths, are lessons that all publishers can learn from and use. If you’ve seen any similar examples, I’d love to hear about them.
UPDATE (August 2014): The Telegraph attempt something similar with their visualisation of children killed in Israel’s offensive on Gaza, shown below.
UPDATE (August 2014): Also on similar lines, Buzzfeed’s This Is How Many British Soldiers Died During World War I:
Apparently inspired by this post by Jeremy Singer-Vine (who also provided the code):