Dr Cameron Edmond looks at three narrative visualisations that effectively articulate COVID-19 public health messages.

The pandemic has given prominence to an emerging field of data storytelling, says Dr Cameron Edmond from UNSW Art & Design. Narrative visualisation – data visualisation that uses storytelling techniques – can make complex narratives like COVID-19 more accessible, he says.

“Visualisations [that] are augmented by the use of narrative … create a kind of hybrid data storytelling,” the expert in digital media and communication technology says. “By drawing on the disciplines of creative writing and journalism, we can more effectively walk readers through visualisations.”

Dr Edmond, whose research spans AI-generated literature and videogame design, is examining how narrative structures influence our understanding of data sets at UNSW’s EPICentre (Expanded Perception & Interaction Centre). The EPICentre undertakes interdisciplinary visualisation and computer graphics research across the arts and STEMM, making historic and new data visually accessible, using cutting-edge computing, 3D-immersive and screen-based technologies.

“Narrative visualisations can range from something as specific as adopting various narrative modes [such as dialogue, action and description] to present a collection of visualisations, to utilising text annotations to clarify data or evoke empathy,” he says.

“We are asking which elements offer the greatest opportunities to promote understanding.”

Data versus narrative

Data visualisations, such as graphs, charts and maps, can be abstract and difficult to interpret, he says. “[They] still represent uncertainty and ‘data’ to some users, who will struggle to engage with them.”

Incorporating narrative elements helps to make them more accessible, he says.

Creating narratives is fundamental to social existence, he says. “In order to explain things, we're going to put them into narrative context.”

But relying on narratives alone has its own issues, he says. “Narratives come with their own social baggage, their own cultural baggage. And they can be very, very persuasive.”

When it comes to some of the denialist narratives we’ve seen during the pandemic, like Bunnings Karen’s, there is often a lack of supportive facts and figures, Dr Edmond says. Narrative visualisation offers a balance of data and narrative, and a means to challenge misapprehensions, he says.

“We can start to flip the script. And we can start to figure out how to communicate this data through a narrative, and maybe change [uninformed public perceptions].”

This Flatten the Curve data visualisation uses significant narrative elements to unpack its meaning. Image: Shutterstock

Flattening the curve

Data visualisations have been used throughout the pandemic to communicate the latest statistics, health findings and recommendations.

“To use the Flatten the Curve infographic as an example: although the graphic is interesting and useful, it can be difficult for people to interpret,” Dr Edmond says.

The Flatten the Curve infographic went viral early in the pandemic. It shows the difference in the number of active cases with and without mitigation strategies, like social distancing. But it also gave rise to many explainer pieces unpacking the data presented, he says.

“While narrative structure isn't a silver bullet that is going to solve all our problems, it can help with communication”, as illustrated by the following examples, he says.

The Washington Post on social distancing vs quarantine

In March, The Washington Post used a narrative visualisation to illustrate and explain the exponential spread of COVID-19. Using a sample population, it uses sequential animations to illustrate the effect of a free-for-all, an attempted quarantine, moderate social distancing and extensive social distancing.

While the simulations simplify the spread of COVID, they effectively demonstrate how the degree of uptake affects the success of mitigation.

“These dots are being used to represent what we typically use words to showcase,” he says. “By presenting the data in the form of both visualisation and a coherent narrative, the authors take the audience through the idea of ‘flattening the curve’.

“A single image becomes a story about a community helping one another – is there anyone who doesn't like that story?”

The Guardian US on who can work from home

The Guardian shared an infographic by Mona Chalabi that illustrates the unspoken privilege around working from home. Through the diminishing size of the living space depicted, the narrative visualisation evokes an emotional response and a strong message.

“We're in the midst of a very interesting media narrative about the wonders of working from home,” Dr Edmond says. “The narrative that is forming is overly optimistic, and risks erasing the voices and stories of those who can't.”

This brief narrative visualisation “not only presents the data on the inequity of working from home, but also creates empathy by personifying what are otherwise merely statistics”.

Dr Cameron Edmond, UNSW EPICentre. Photo: supplied

The Guardian on the basic reproduction number

The Guardian compared COVID-19 with a series of infectious diseases throughout history, including the Spanish Flu, Ebola and measles in a recent narrative visualisation. To do this, it looks at the basic reproduction number, how many new cases one infected person generates.

It uses a series of simple annotated diagrams that alter as you scroll down to illustrate how isolating one person significantly reduces the spread.

“It's attractive, right? It's nice to look at, and you engage with it, and then it's slowly building up [your understanding],” Dr Edmond says.

“By comparing COVID-19 to other viruses, and by sequentially presenting data and introducing additional ‘characters’, such as immunisation and those who have recovered from it, the authors walk readers through what are otherwise complex and messy graphics.” 

It also introduces a series of case studies with an interactive element. Interactively engaging the end-user has the potential to give them great ownership over the data presented and increase their trust, Dr Edmond says.

“I find this a really interesting thing,” he says. “Are people more likely to trust [the data] if I give you a graph, and I ask you to read it and figure it out all by yourself?

“Or if I sit down and try to explain it to you. Are you going to trust me, and the story I'm telling you?”

The essential building blocks of narrative visualisation

Dr Edmond’s current project at UNSW’s EPICentre looks at trustworthiness, memorability and comprehension in its analysis of narrative visualisation. The UNSW team, in partnership with the Department of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, have created a narrative visualisation on statistics of global development and poverty using data from the World Bank.

“[We are] saying, are there any building blocks, if you like, that are unique to [narrative visualisation],” Dr Edmond says. “If we look at cinema and fiction writing, you have your protagonist and your antagonist ... [in] a news article, you have kind of the inverted pyramid structure that’s very unique to that.”

The DST narrative visualisation employs different storytelling elements, including a virtual presenter, animations and subplots (where the information presented is more tangential). Participants in the project then record their responses to different elements and are tested on their understanding of the data.

The project is currently seeking respondents to take part in the research. For further information or to register your interest, visit the Narrative visualisation for data comprehension project page.