Image courtesy of Datalands

Last summer, against the backdrop of a world that looks increasingly unfamiliar, three Brooklyn designers launched a studio with the tagline, “Giving data-viz a new shine.” The newly-minted Datalands co-founders had worked next to each other for years, at the Pencil Factory studios in Greenpoint, occasionally criss-crossing their work when a project required more than one person. They decided to formalize their collaboration after a digital currency startup asked Gavin Potenza—the data-cruncher of the group—to create a brand identity based on futuristic finances, and it became apparent that they could more effectively take on these kinds of meatier, information-dense projects as a team.

“There’s not a whole lot of mainstream, consumable, good data-visualization out there,” says Potenza, who owns Datalands along with Leandro Castelao and Liz Meyer. “Data is so prevalent and big but also intimidating. It doesn’t always seem very accessible. When we think about what we want to create, it’s not just what clients think is cool. Can we use our skill sets for good, by providing information?”

The Datalands founders, like most of mankind, didn’t see a global pandemic coming. But seven months after their launch, the tenor of information-sharing on the internet shifted dramatically. Panicked citizens everywhere began to spread online guidance on how to behave, how to stay safe, and what to know. By early March, the CDC’s recommendation to wash hands for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” spawned a hand-washing infographic meme. The online infographics hub Information is Beautiful released a COVID-19 Data Pack, and on Instagram, people circulated it as if it were gospel. A fairly rudimentary graph about social distancing and hospitalization rates morphed into an international edict to “flatten the curve” through severe lifestyle and behavior changes. That data-visualization has since been called “The chart that changed the world.” 

Image courtesy of Datalands

“Coronavirus has become a data story,” says John Burns-Murdoch, a senior data-visualization journalist at the Financial Times. During the earlier days of the outbreak, Burns-Murdoch created and then updated the newspaper’s daily, color-coded coronavirus trajectory tracker, which charted each country’s progress (or lack thereof) in containing the virus. When his team made changes to the chart, hundreds, if not thousands, of readers would email him. “We’re very acutely aware that we’re shaping the lens through which people see this stuff,” Burns-Murdoch says. “The double-edged sword of working in data visualization is that when people look at something in a chart, they subconsciously ascribe a level of objectivity to it that they probably wouldn’t to a paragraph of text.”

That implicit authority raises the stakes for data-visualization designers. In late January, when the Datalands team decided to post a chart comparing the first 20 days of the SARS outbreak to that of COVID-19, the message was one of, Yikes, look at that. It’s styled like most of their other work, with abstract shapes glowing in neon—Matisse cut-outs meet The Matrix. *The original Instagram post has since been deleted, as it referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan coronavirus”—language that was originally used by many media outlets but has since been called out for its xenophobia. In its original form, the chart was meant to depict the soaring trajectory of the virus, but it highlights exactly how much responsibility every aspect of a data visualization bears, from language to graphics. Datalands updated the chart’s language  (as seen in our header) and told Eye on Design: “At the time we published the graphic, the virus and virus data were limited to the Wuhan region, and as such it was widely known was the ‘Wuhan Coronavirus.’ We certainly don’t want to contribute to xenophobia, so the best option was to remove the post and eliminate the inappropriate name.” Datalands’ five coronavirus-related posts since have gradually sloped towards more generic messages, the last of which flashes brightly and reminds followers to “Stay in.”

@monachalabi Instagram post

“Graphics can influence people in big ways. We’re finding that out now,” Potenza says. “At the same time, we’re not in a newsroom and we’re not data analysts. We know how to source data and show impactful data visualizations, but we’re not necessarily a trusted source.” 

A data-viz designer at a newspaper has a different agenda than one working independently or on behalf of a brand. But given the way information circulates the web, that distinction doesn’t always bear weight, and infographics that aren’t sanctioned by a newsroom have played pivotal roles during the pandemic. Mona Chalabi’s cartoon depiction of coronavirus symptoms has become one of the predominant images of the outbreak, and a key reference for those trying to self-diagnose. (When Eye on Design editor Madeleine Morley fell sick and felt too exhausted to parse health information online, it was Chalabi’s graphics that made it clear she needed to call a doctor.) Elsewhere on Instagram, illustrator Sara Andreason’s simple “break the chain” matchstick illustration—based on a similar one used during the AIDS epidemic—has elicited comments such as, “in complicated times, we need the ability to boil down a message to its core more than ever.” Citing a similar need for clear communication, the United Nations issues its first open brief to the design community, calling for submissions for handwashing and social distancing PSAs. 

Unfortunately, a monolithic message—at least one that goes beyond “stay home”—doesn’t necessarily exist. “There’s a lot of data people are using right now that’s barely worth the paper it’s written on,” Burns-Murdoch says of the infection and hospitalization figures coming in. “We’ve gotten a lot of pushback from people saying our charts are too abstract. But from a design perspective, our sole goal here is to make that point.” His job isn’t just about conveying the numbers; it calls for showing the messiness of those numbers. It makes for slippery terrain: Even Chalabi’s seemingly straightforward symptoms data-viz is technically out of date, now that the Centers for Disease Control has updated its list of potential signs of COVID-19.  

The world hasn’t experienced a pandemic of this scale since the Spanish Flu of 1918. That means that most of humanity faces an unprecedented crisis of a still unknown scale—and not every country’s government is providing a clear path forward. It follows that people would look to other sources for information, then act on it. Data-visualizations become powerful tools for taking action and litigating emotions, regardless of whether the chart comes from The New York Times or a young studio in Brooklyn. MIT Technology Review points out the newfound weight falling on data-viz designers, in a review of some of the best and worst coronavirus dashboards: “There’s a hell of a lot more that goes into designing these dashboards than just whipping up a map with big ‘outbreak’ circles here and there,” wrote Neel V. Patel. “You need to make sure your data representations are consistent and accurate, while also taking into account people’s concerns and fears.” Emphasis on the fears.

“When we think about starting the studio, we never could’ve imagined that this would be the reality,” Datalands’ Castelao says. “I think we’re trying to find our place. But we know we can say that it’s good if you stay home. You can help other people.”

*Correction 5/28/2020: An earlier version of this post featured an embed of a Datalands Instagram post with a graphic that compared “Wuhan to SARS,” dated January 30. We removed the embedded image and reached out to Datalands for comment, which is reflected in the updated story.