In the era of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), scientists, economists, and politicians are using data visualization to communicate complex medical issues to the general public, prompting the rallying cry “Flatten the Curve” to describe the process of slowing the growth of the pandemic.

On Thursday, March 19, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered businesses to keep at least 75% of their workers home, explaining “This is a data driven decision…I am going to increase the density control.” As he educates the nation daily with his trademark slides and graphs, the general public is learning via data visualization why it's important to track the changes in the rate of increase of cases rather than focusing on the actual number of infected individuals.

Flatten the Curve

A significant portion of the general public may not have heard the term “data visualization” but many now grasp what it means to “flatten the curve” via social distancing to reduce the rate of growth of infection and conserve limited medical resources.

Imagine trying to describe that principle verbally: “Social distancing will lessen the rate of transmission.  The number of cases will remain the same, but the impact will be spread out over a greater interval of time, thus putting less of a strain on medical resources.”  Huh?  Would that explanation really convince municipalities to close the schools and individuals to avoid the neighborhood pub?  Probably not.

In a widely-shared data visualization tweeted by Drew Harris, a population health researcher at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, the concept of “flattening the curve” is easy to grasp for the lay person:

Data Visualization in the Era of COVID-19 Coronavirus

This data visualization went viral as the expression “flatten the curve” entered the public conversation.  The image enabled non-specialists -- who might have struggled to grasp the underlying mathematics -- to understand why social distancing would lessen the strain on the nation’s healthcare systems.  In the midst of this public health crisis, data visualization has become a powerful tool for communicating medical status, perspective, and predictive analysis to the general public.  

If you can measure it, you can manage it.

 

If you can visualize it, you can understand it.

 

Watching the progress of the pandemic in real time

 

In an era when the world is connected by social media, millions of posts about coronavirus, as well as news sites online, provide data to generate near-real-time information for public health officials tracking its spread.

The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has developed an interactive dashboard that compiles data about COVID-19 in real time from a variety of sources including the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Twitter feeds, and direct communication sent through the dashboard.

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Simple in design and intuitive to use, the dashboard displays the location and number of confirmed cases as they are reported, along with casualties and recoveries.

For first time in the occurrence of a global outbreak, as scientists and medical personnel monitor the growth of a pandemic using the power of artificial intelligence, data visualization has made the implications of their findings accessible in real time to the general public.

For a health crisis in which public behavior is crucial to containing the spread of the pandemic, effective public education in terms that the lay person can grasp with ease is essential.

In this case a picture is worth far, far more than a thousand words.

Joyce Alper

Analysis Factory

Copyright 2020, John Hopkins University

 
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