Every day, we have been bombarded with news about people cruelty toward other people or animals and natural and unnatural disasters that result in many deaths. It is now even doubled because of COVID-19 and its death toll. You could say that there is nothing spectacular in it. From the first time man set foot on Earth: Famine, Plague and War are our inseparable companions, and in the era when we plan to conquer the Universe, they are still not defeated.
However, most of these terrifying scenes are somewhere long distance from our safe and cosy homes. In addition, we are overwhelmed by violence presented in mass media. That gives us the impression that those situations are unrealistic and abstract. We hardly attach them to real people, victims and it is going to be even worse as we learnt from the latest studies about decreasing empathy.
For instance, I experience the same feeling of indifference when looking at COVID-19 statistics. These are ONLY numbers. Dehumanized numbers like production series or kilometres run in your tracking app. And that scares me a lot.
A situation when people (or any other living creature) are presented as a sequence of numbers scares me. When we use some abstract forms to identify persons, there is a danger that we will perceive them as objects and not as subjects. I witnessed behaviours involving the use of employee numbers in internal communication and it was a part of the culture. For me, this approach detached living people from their formal functions and roles. Roles become impersonal. There are no people, there are only cogs in the machine or resources to use and to get rid of when used.
So how to present numbers and communicate real people tragedies?
Another thing is the language used to describe victims. Many times, the word “case”, “deaths” or “fatal accident” replaces words “wounded people”, “died people”, “victims”. Especially in medical statistics like presented in Figure 1 number of people who died and recovered from COVID-19 (statistics for a particular point in time).
Using abstract forms do not help in building vivid pictures in the mind of our audience of happy people, who recovered from the awful disease and went back to their families or plunged in grief over the loss of their loved ones. And this is what we would like to achieve – move their imagination to evoke their feelings.
Which of those subtitles in Figure 1 are more dramatic?
People, in general, have problems with understanding big numbers, statistics and abstract visual forms presenting the information. The numbers in Figure 1 are so enormous that is hard to imagine them. To convey information effectively we must downsize it and chunk to the well-known, familiar, and easy to interpret elements.
In Figure 2 we can see the percentage of how many people died vs recovered from COVID -19. I used the abstract visual form to present information – pie chart and impersonal, medical description – death rate, closed cases. Nothing about victims.
How can we interpret this picture? If we are good at maths and understand the concept behind percentages, we can have the impression that 2% is a quite low chance to die of COVID-19 and there is no big deal (I won’t vaccinate myself! It’s a mystification to implant a chip on me!). And again, using the word doesn’t help us understand a real, current threat. “Death” for most of us is a metaphysical conception that lies somewhere in the far distant future.
To downsize information and present it in a more readable format, we can use graphical representation, small objects that symbolize humans. This approach lets an audience understand the range of coronavirus death toll because the big number was chunked into small pieces (1 out of 50). Number 50 is much closer to our imagination than 5 613 594. Using human symbols I emphasized that numbers are related to people.
Do you feel now more or less certain that COVID-19 is not a big deal?
We can use the time to strengthen our message significantly when we embedded our audience into the present moment and convert statistics into occurrences. With this tactic, we can easily emphasise how human life is fragile because when you are reading this text every nine-second someone passes away because of the corona virus (again I used a 2% death rate). You can use animated gifs to be more dramatic.
How do you feel now with this knowledge?
I do not say that standard data visualisations are bad, and we should not use numbers or statistics. I just want to challenge anyone who communicates information to a wide audience to tailor better channels to make sure that a message gets properly understood, and people will start looking again at those who suffer… with appropriate respect.