Visualizing the Ebola outbreak

Despite setbacks, The Ebola Report and Frontline use numbers to put the disease into perspective

In August when the recent Ebola outbreak was still in its infancy, we briefly looked at how news organizations successfully and unsuccessfully displayed and analyzed related data. The outbreak hasn’t ended—and the data continues to change—so we’re going to take a deeper look at how journalists are approaching the data about a virus that has killed about 2,300 people this year.

Most of the data related to the virus is coming from the World Health Organization, which in turn gets its information largely from national health ministries. The WHO provides the data through periodic news releases, sometimes spaced days apart. In other words, news outlets can’t use any automated scrapers to collect the numbers.

This has hampered news organizations’ ability to create effective data visualizations, because they remain static until someone in the newsroom manually updates it following another news release. As a result, otherwise compelling graphics produced by The Associated Press, the CBC, and The New York Times showing progress of the outbreak lose their value because when they automatically become obsolete the next day. If there were a way to get the information directly from WHO’s database, likely through an API, or from the ministries themselves, news outlets would be able to provide the current information the current crisis needs and the internet news audience tends to demand.

One project seems to be moving in that direction. At the request of the Liberian government, journalism professors Ken Harper of Syracuse University and Steven King of University of North Carolina were tasked with launching a site aimed at informing Liberians about the current Ebola situation. The result was Ebola Report, a minimalist site that effectively conveys the number of cases and deaths over time as well as where in Liberia they are occurring. “The main goal was to be able to provide accurate visualizations of data that are available to the decision-makers in Liberia,” King said in an interview.

The Ebola Report is updated with statistics provided by the Liberian government, which it sends it via spreadsheet “ideally daily,” King said. But the team behind the site is looking to make it even faster. “We’re working on a solution to make it as close to real-time as possible,” King said, adding that they hope to make their data open source, which would help solve the static-graphic problem. Created largely by journalism students, Ebola Report deserves a LAUREL not only for its presentation, but also for looking to speed up information-gathering in such a way that it can really affect change in West Africa.

The Ebola outbreak also demands that journalists examine historical data — available from the Centers for Disease Control — and the chronology of the 2014 spread. Frontline produced an excellent interactive map that traces the current spread from Agent Zero, a 2-year-old Guinean boy who died in December, through to September 9.

It tells the story about the spread effectively, and we hope the LAUREL-worthy effort is updated through whenever the outbreak ends. The Guardian’s timeline-based map about Ebola outbreaks since 1976 tells a great historical story complete stories about each outbreak up to 2014, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated since August.

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Tanveer Ali is a Chicago-based journalist who is Chicago's data reporter and social media producer. He has reported for the Chicago News Cooperative, WBEZ, and GOOD Magazine, among others. A former staff writer at the Detroit News, he received a master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism.