The coronavirus pandemic dramatically increased the use of data and graphics in everyday news reporting and analysis. In October, the British footballer turned broadcaster Gary Lineker tweeted: “The only positive I can think of during this entire pandemic nightmare is that some of us may have learnt to read a graph.”
In fact, charts have been a regular part of the news for decades — but mostly in a supporting role, inserted into stories long after the words have been filed. This year, something different happened: the charts were the story. Data and graphics were the basis for many of the most important stories of the year, from the spread of Covid-19 to the rise in excess deaths and the millions losing their jobs as economies shut down.
The FT’s visual and data journalism team, like many other people, had to quickly adapt to working and collaborating remotely once national lockdowns were introduced. It soon became clear that this physical disruption was only a small part of a bigger change.
For example, we produced new forms of content, such as the constantly updating coronavirus trackers that have become the FT’s most read content ever after generating millions of page views from the very early days of the pandemic. They in turn, were based on new and evolving data sources that had to be constantly monitored, assessed and aggregated.
Finally, with everyone hit by the pandemic in some way, it was impossible not to feel involved or affected by the content we created. Here is a selection of the team’s personal picks — graphics from a year unlike any other. Alan Smith
Ian Bott, graphic artist
A technical artist’s greatest challenge is making complex devices and systems, often of which you have no initial knowledge yourself, understandable to a general audience. This time last year for instance I had little or no knowledge of viruses, vaccines, RNA, DNA, proteins, ventilators, enzymes, antibodies, T cells, PCR and lateral flow tests and a host of other related subjects but working with a range of technical experts I’ve been, hopefully, able to shed some light on all of them.
It is difficult to pick one piece that sums up the year. A graphic on ventilating buildings to minimise Covid exposure — where it transpired that a colleague’s contact was actually my wife working in the next room — at least summed up the surreal nature of my job in 2020.
However, if I had to pick one chart that, to me, exemplifies the skill and dedication of scientists, engineers and healthcare workers in their fight against the virus it would be this graphic from April explaining how viruses’ own mutations are analysed to track their spread. The elegance and ingenuity of the technique is breathtaking.
The economic impact
Keith Fray, HEAD OF STATISTICS
The Financial Times generates a lot of editorial charts. Around 17,000 were produced — as opposed to automatically generated — over the past year.
For many years I have been preparing data for those charts. And over that time there have been many watersheds. For instance in 2008 I was suddenly making innumerable line graphs of market variables going top left to bottom right rapidly, as the financial crisis struck.
But this year saw a chart type previously only seen when somebody had put a decimal point in the wrong place.
The first hint of the pandemic’s economic impact came in late March in the US with the weekly release of new claims for unemployment insurance. A data series starting in 1967 with a previous peak of 695,000 in 1982 suddenly hit 3.3m — and then 6.9m and 6.6m in the following two weeks.
The global economy has taken a long while to recover from the financial crisis, and trend growth and productivity are still depressed more than a decade on. The coronavirus recession has been event-driven rather than due to underlying economic trends. Whether that makes a difference to the speed of recovery is likely to be a dominant theme of 2021.
A second blow to young workers
Aleksandra Wisniewska, Visual projects editor
Among those hardest hit by the US jobs numbers were younger workers — millennials and Gen Z — many of whom had for the second time in a little over a decade had their lives upended by an economic crisis. In the US, more than a quarter of under-25s lost their jobs amid the first wave of the pandemic, arresting many careers and pushing many millennials into insecure jobs or career breaks.
More than 11m people under 40 in the US lost their jobs in spring alone. Many moved back in with parents, some experienced mental health problems and others complained that the political system had sacrificed their economic security in order to save older generations.
By October in Britain, youth unemployment — those aged 18 to 29 — was on course to hit levels not seen since the 1980s recession, according to a report published by the Resolution Foundation. The researchers warned of a lost “Covid generation”, out of work for extended periods of time.
Having been dogged by the consequences of the financial crisis in terms of income and relative wealth, millennials and younger workers now have to find ways out of another setback, one that might follow them to the end of their working lives.
Christine Zhang, Data Reporter
For the second time in two US presidential elections, pollsters and forecasters faced criticism after underestimating support for Donald Trump. In 2016, polls and projections incorrectly pointed to Hillary Clinton winning the White House. This year, polls mostly got the outcome right — a victory for Joe Biden. And only in a few battleground states, notably Florida, did they anticipate the wrong winner. But they once again underestimated Mr Trump’s vote share, particularly in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states where Joe Biden won, but where polls were off by similar amounts and had similar biases as 2016.
The one-sided error, which was even more pronounced in Senate races, has cast doubts on pollsters’ ability to accurately survey the US electorate. “We should always expect some error, but bias is more troubling,” says Nick Gourevitch of Global Strategy Group, a polling agency that works with Democratic party candidates.
Everything from the challenges of polling during a pandemic to the record-high turnout for both parties and the tendency of core Trump supporters to opt out of polls have been put forward to explain the misses. But more time is needed to assess these and other possible factors. Meanwhile, many say that the broader polling industry — including the media that cover it — must do more to emphasise uncertainty, especially when writing stories about candidates in a tight race.
How air pollution fell worldwide
Steven Bernard, senior visual journalist
Draconian lockdowns. Restrictions on movement. The economic cost of trying to curb the spread of Covid-19 has been enormous. However, there has been one unforeseen side effect: clearer, cleaner skies. Nitrogen dioxide levels, a pollutant linked to cars, fell dramatically in cities worldwide. With airlines grounding their fleets, industries shutting down and emissions from transportation and power plummeting, the changes were startling.
In the EU, daily carbon emissions declined 58 per cent, according to calculations by Sia Partners, a French consultancy specialising in energy. Citizens of New Delhi saw blue skies instead of thick smog as they experienced the longest spell of clean air on record. Wildlife sightings increased globally, with around 2.6bn people living under restrictions.
But the respite was shortlived, as pollution levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels in most major cities around the globe despite optimism that many countries are adopting more ambitious climate targets.
Commuting in a Covid era
Chris Campbell, visual journalist
When millions made an almost overnight shift to working from home, converting kitchen counters to workstations, many people began to re-evaluate their living, and now working, environment. Were expensive or smaller properties in larger cities still preferable to the value for money or space gained in the suburbs or beyond?
The answer came quite quickly. As the first lockdown in the UK eased, demand surged for properties in the north of the country and the commuter belts that ring Manchester, Liverpool, London and the big urban centres in Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh. And as proximity to the office seemed less of a priority, longtime property hotspots, such as the capital, lost some of their appeal.
Property portal Zoopla measured customer inquiries about specific properties in pre-lockdown February versus post-lockdown June and found that in some commuter-belt areas demand nearly doubled after the housing market reopened.
As the year ends with a further tightening of restrictions — albeit with a mass vaccination programme under way — it is not yet known just how fundamentally our relationship to the office has changed. For many, homeworking is not feasible. But, even for those who can make it work, it can be chaotic or isolating. Yet many insist they will continue telecommuting even after it is safe to return to the workplace. The economic impact of these changing work patterns on city centre businesses, which depend on the influx of daily commuters, could be significant.
The true toll of the pandemic
John Burn-Murdoch, SENIOR Data journalist
“Excess deaths” became a grimly familiar term as the number of Covid-related deaths grew so rapidly that countries were unable to keep track of the numbers of bodies in their morgues. In April alone, there were 150,000 more deaths than usual across the US, Italy, Ecuador and Brazil, more than double the number attributed to the virus at the time.
After those dismal spring peaks subsided, there was a sense that the worst might be over. Mortality figures returned to normal in the summer, and then Europe’s autumn viral resurgence appeared to be less lethal than the first wave. The FT began to think about retiring its excess mortality tracker.
But any such optimism has been beaten back. Deaths have climbed again across much of Europe as winter set in, including places that were barely affected in the spring. For April, read October: 141,000 excess deaths were recorded across the 39 countries the FT tracks, 78 per cent more deaths than officially reported.
So, instead of archiving our excess death charts, we will be spending the coming days redesigning them to plot rising death tolls that span more than one year.
The threat to democracy
Federica Cocco, Statistics journalist
While unique in many ways, a lot of the trends we witnessed this year have been identifiable for some time. One of the most striking is the growing distrust in government and the democratic process.
Dissatisfaction with democracy has reached its highest level in 25 years in advanced economies, according to a study published at the beginning of 2020 by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy. The researchers based their findings on the views of 4m people spread over thousands of surveys — not a negligible sample size.
The downward trend has sped up since the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and was further exacerbated by various domestic events in a number of countries ranging from the political stalemate over Brexit in the UK and Europe to the widening inequality in the US, Greece’s sovereign debt crisis and Brazil’s car wash corruption scandal which exposed a culture of systemic graft in the country’s politics. This year the shock of the pandemic, coupled with a wave of disinformation on the science of the virus, has undermined the policy responses to the public health crisis and amplified distrust and concern among citizens.
Trust is the glue that keeps societies together, and there is no vaccine against the long-term consequences of its dissolution.