Following the science

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overview

Exploring (and celebrating) the massive response of the global science and medical research communities to understand - and get us out of - the COVID-19 pandemic

I was responsible for all research/analysis, visual design, and site development on this project. Edited by Ilia Blinderman at The Pudding

challenge

Throughout the pandemic, as the rest of the world was shutting down, the global science and medical communities sprang into action. In 2020 alone, researchers published over 90,000 journal articles on COVID-19.

That's one of the reasons that vaccines were approved in record-setting time. Yet, this work often goes unrecognized in the general public. The goal of this project was to change that.

Network plot showing number of citations for each article

process

The project began by wondering how researchers around the world were collaborating with one another throughout the pandemic. Something like a map showing how Dr. Epidemi in Madrid was publishing articles with Dr. Ology in Singapore, and so on.

Once I started pulling those articles, however, it became clear that the sheer volume of COVID-related research was telling a broader story about the scientific process, and how research teams around the world were responding in an unprecedented way to understand and combat this virus.

We expanded the project to focus on 3 different storylines: 1) The volume of research articles, 2) The worldwide collaborations behind those articles, and 3) how research articles are used by the science community to inform future work.

PubMed - the biomedical research database - provided a rich dataset of tens of thousands of research articles relating to coronaviruses and COVID-19. In addition, the database offers author affiliations on each article (which can be parsed and geolocated) and citation data (including all articles cited by a given article, and all subsequent articles that cite a given article).

After analyzing the data (and geocoding over 300k author affiliation strings), the next step was to translate the main takeaways into storyboards to guide the site design and development.

Sketch depicting citation links between articles

The design and build of the site iterated on the story boards to refine the structure, behavior, and design simultaneously. In general, this approach tends to yield the best results as the design can inform the code can inform the design can inform the code... in ever refined cycles.

While workshopping initial designs, it became clear that adding more context and details via narrative text  would help viewers appreciate the scale of the response to COVID-19. The final site merged the 3 main sections into a combined scrollytelling experience, with multiple interactive visualizations embedded within blocks of narrative.