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Inside the making of the coronavirus trajectory charts on the Financial Times’s “most viewed page ever”

If you’ve been following the coronavirus crisis online, it’s likely you’ll have come across the Financial Times’s coronavirus trajectory trackers. The publisher has had its data journalism team working on producing charts coloured with the FT’s famous pink-tinged hues, which have contributed to a constantly-updating, free-to-read article on ‘Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as countries fight to contain the pandemic’. 

Media Voices spoke to one of the team members behind these charts; Senior Data-Visualisation Journalist John Burn-Murdoch, for the podcast. Burn-Murdoch has been a leading figurehead for the charts on social media, taking the time to explain the FT’s data collection and presentation methods to the public.

But coronavirus data is anything but simple. So how do Burn-Murdoch and the data team gather and prepare that data so it can be compared in trajectory charts? Here are some of the key challenges the FT faced with the charts, and how they work every day to overcome them.

Growing in complexity

Before the pandemic, the FT’s data visualisation team had just recovered from the aftermath of the UK election, and were gearing up for the US Democratic Primaries later this year. The team normally work on a range of data stories, from economics and sports to the environment, so although coronavirus had appeared on their radar, there was debate around how to cover it.

“We were having conversations with our world news desk in January and February about, ‘What does this look like for the FT? Is this a China story, or is it a global story?’” Burn-Murdoch told Media Voices. “We decided fairly early on that we needed an ongoing ‘home’ for all things coronavirus, because once it became clear that this was spreading beyond Wuhan…this was going to be something that we’d want to follow, and to do on a single home instead of lots of stories.”

In the early days, gathering the data needed for the charts was a much more straightforward task. “There were fewer countries involved and the numbers were all much lower,” Burn-Murdoch explained. The team used figures from the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, with occasional updates in the evening from European countries. But very quickly, the situation grew more complicated.

“The data today is anything but crystal clear, and anything but 100% reliable,” said Burn-Murdoch. “What became apparent fairly soon was that…there are sources like the ECDC [European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control] and John Hopkins that we could pull in as a starting point. But we would then have to do a lot of manual data collection on the day to make sure that we had those European afternoon and evening updates in our data.”

Early in April, the team had got to the stage where, for a subset of countries of editorial significance, they were going directly to the government websites or press briefings of those countries to ensure they had the latest figures. Often, that would involve communicating with an FT correspondent in those regions who would give the latest deaths and cases figures directly from a press conference.

But even with up-to-date numbers, the coronavirus data has grown to be anything but straightforward to compile and compare.

Adapting to changing methodologies

One of the biggest challenges for the FT as the weeks go on is dealing with the difference between countries and how they measure the impact of the crisis. Even something as simple as death rates or positive cases can vary hugely in how countries define and measure it.

“Several times there have been countries that have decided to change their methodology halfway through,” said Burn-Murdoch. “First it was China, who changed its definition of a positive test, then France started including care home deaths alongside other deaths when other countries weren’t doing that. Of course, the UK has now also done the same thing.”

“Then from time to time, you’ll get a country which releases a backlog of positive tests or deaths all in one dump, even though that number represents deaths or tests that have occurred over a period of weeks.”

This meant that once the team had compiled the chart for that day, they had to spend time each evening in a “second phase” of checking that it all made sense, and looking for outliers. This could indicate a mistake in the data, or a country changing their reporting, in which case there would have to be a decision about how to address that.

“In some cases, we would strip out non-hospital deaths, for example, so we were comparing all countries like for like,” Burn-Murdoch explained. “That sense checking, sanity checking and cleaning essentially has always been the biggest task here.”

Burn-Murdoch’s emphasised that normally, when working with data like GDP or climate change temperature data, it is much easier to compare numbers across the world and being clear on what that number is. But what became apparent very early on with COVID is that that’s simply not the case.

“Most of our work as data journalists is getting to the point where we can compare these numbers to one another,” he said. “That includes a lot of adjustments, and checking against alternative data sources all the way through.”

Making editorial decisions with data

This in turn has meant the team have had to be very aware of how the charts are presented and interpreted on the political stage. Burn-Murdoch is very aware that every decision around data measurement and presentation can affect the output.

“As the journalist, as soon as you know that changing these measures – even if they’re all technically legitimate – will change the order in which countries appear, for example, you’re making an editorial decision,” he outlined. “I know that if I change to per capita, the US won’t look as bad, but Switzerland and Belgium will look worse.”

“The way you have to do it is you just have to put all the politics of it aside and think, ‘What is the fairest or straightest way of doing this?’”

Despite trying to keep the reasons for presenting data in a particular way statistical rather than political, the FT has had a “highly partisan” response to the charts. “Any number we put out isn’t going to be reported just as a straight number,” Burn-Murdoch said. “It’s going to be reported as the number that proves X is bad and Y is good.”

One step Burn-Murdoch has taken to address this is to be open and transparent about the team’s rationale for using certain measures or scales on Twitter. If he was therefore to switch methods in one area, he says people could rightly question his reasons for doing so.

A rewarding story

For the FT, the main page that the trajectory charts all sit in is now “by a large margin” the publisher’s most-viewed page ever. It has also demonstrated to many people that the FT isn’t just a business and finance publication, but it also covers diseases, health, and public service journalism.

Despite the challenges and misconceptions around the data and charts, Burn-Murdoch has relished the opportunity to work on a project this difficult. “It’s a very conversational story. We’re in constant dialogue with readers, epidemiologists and academics, and this whole thing is a conversation,” he said.

“A lot of people are starting to become aware that even on the science side, a lot of answers on COVID are not straightforward. It’s just been a case of everyone learning that data and science are fuzzer than we might have thought, and as a result, being at the centre of those conversations has been really rewarding.

Listen to the full Media Voices Podcast episode here.