Data Visualization In A Breaking News Environment

We spoke to Emily Maguire, the former Editorial UX Designer at the BBC to discuss how to create a data narrative in extreme conditions


The BBC is one of the world's leading media and news outlets. Founded in 1922, the corporation operates across various divisions, including broadcast, world service, online journalism, and other projects. Often, both visual and online journalists must be capable of working under high pressure in a breaking news environment. Emily Maguire, the BBC's former Editorial UX Designer was among the keynote speakers at the Data Visualisation Summit in London, where she shared with us how to successfully create a visual narrative using data and release it to tight deadlines.

The BBC's Visual Journalism team consists of web developers, journalists, and designers. These people are responsible for telling stories by analyzing data, turning it into graphics and visual projects. The team also ensures that stories are accessible and user-friendly on all kinds of screen sizes and digital platforms. Overall, there are three main work streams where data visualization is used: live news, world service, and visual projects.

Within live news, for example, diagrams are used to help readers understand complex stories and processes within the content. These may include a demonstration of the key parts of the human heart, how the clean air is circulated in a plane cabin, and other facts and processes. Other data viz tools help to reveal patterns and allow for exploration of the data behind stories, for example: 'When you need to compare China's population to the world's average since the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979,' Emily shared.

Among the data viz tools used at the BBC, Emily mentions annotated images which act as an easy way to enhance the story page and can be produced quickly by a journalist. They also create two types of graphics for social media channels. One of them contains bespoke illustrations and the other one is 'templated' and photography based. Both types of graphics demonstrate bite-size statistics which are shared daily across social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

However, it's not always the case that the visual journalism team has all the time in the world to produce visual material. When it comes to the breaking news environment, aside from text pieces, supporting graphics also have to appear promptly, but Emily says that: 'Unfortunately, the reality is that most of the breaking news stories are about tragedies,' and this can often make it a challenge to create high-quality visual content in a timely manner.’

To explain how challenging this may be, Emily used the Germanwings plane crash which happened in March 2015, as a case study, where the pilot 'intentionally' crashed the plane into the mountainside of the French Alps. Emily said that as the news arrived, journalists and designers quickly discussed the key facts needed to present the story. Among the first graphics created were the map images which illustrated where the plane was coming from and an approximate location of the crash. To do this, the visual team used a piece of software called Curious which allows them to create high-quality maps. Additionally, they used the image from Google Satellite to demonstrate the last known location of the plane in the Alps. Emily says: 'Within minutes we received more information and again used the satellite data to develop close-ups.'

The team knew that the accident location was remote and completely inaccessible by road, so it was a challenge to come up with more visuals as the breaking news story continued to evolve: 'Within an hour we received the news that the crash site had been located at an altitude of 2,000 metres and air safety inspectors were on their way to inspect it.' For follow up graphics, the team used Google Earth again, to demonstrate how mountainous the region was. As the story evolved, more data appeared about the Germanwings' spotless flight safety record, signalling that the accident was highly unusual. As more official reports started to occur, it became possible to create more graphics about the flight and details of its fatal descent. Four hours after the crash, voice recordings and more flight data were discovered, allowing the crash team to analyze the spread and size of debris, and eventually, TV designers could create a 3D model of the crash site. A total of 144 people died in the incident. Based on the fact that victims were nationals of different countries, it had been requested to produce graphics of the crash site map in 20 languages.

'This is the reality of working in live news. It can be really difficult to stay unemotional, but we have to focus on presenting the story in the best way possible,' Emily concluded.

Looking small

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