The more I think about today’s front page of the New York Times, the more it is for me another watershed moment for data visualization. But not for good reasons.

This graph is confronting us with the limitations of data visualization to convey tragedies.
Tragedies like COVID-19 deaths happen at the individual level. To their relatives, friends and coworkers, each victim is a full person. To a chart, they are a dot.
The NY Times introduces the graphic this way:

“It began with one dot. Then it grew to nearly half a million.”

The reality is more that it began with one person and it grew to half a million dots.…
Turning a person into a dot, which is what data visualization does by nature, is the opposite of conveying the tragedy of death. 500,000 deaths are not made 500,000 times bigger than one, they are made smaller than a single death.
The NYT means to "overwhelm". But it doesn’t, quite the opposite: it puts the tragedy within our grasp. One visual, read in a few seconds. No dwelling on any one of them. It activates the collapse of compassion. The tragedy is now emotionally manageable.…
Data visualization is good for showing aggregates, for revealing trends that are invisible to individual experiences. But it does not reveal these individual experiences. It loses its power with the accumulation of individual tragedies.
There are other issues with this particular visualization.

There is no position for the reader. We don’t know if these people resemble us, are close or far from us. No grouping that would help us seize the people behind. No age, no level of education or income.
There is only the time of death, this great equalizer fed through the great equalizer of data visualization. And then we have 500,000 dots.
Another unfortunate signal: the graph doesn’t take the full page, as opposed to the thousand names of May 2020. It shares it with tennis news, dog training and online shopping. Giving it less space suggests that even the NY Times team is getting numb to the scale of the tragedy.
Another issue is the focus on deaths alone. From a strict health perspective, it overlooks the long COVID, the months of suffering and recovery, the near-death experiences, the unknown impact on vital organs, etc. All of this is made invisible by this graph.
But more than a critique of the NYT’s front page, this is yet another realization of the limitations of data visualization, of my own craft. This is about the proverbial hammer seeing nails everywhere. What needs to be done may not be a data visualization.
Perhaps a full profile of the 500,000th death. If we want to use data, perhaps a collection of 50 profiles proportional to the distribution of deaths in the population, by age, by race, by level of income, etc. Photos. Something that reveals individuals.

But not 500,000 dots.
No need to unroll, here is the blog version, with a few more details.

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