A New Take on the WaPo’s Flu Map

View full size | Sources: World Health Organization; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | Photos: The Washington Post, Reuters and Bloomberg | Graphic: Patterson Clark, The Washington PostThe Washington Post created this infographic to illustrate the spread of swine flu over the summer. It’s great to see major media sources breaking down a complicated issue for the public, but we have some concerns with the map’s symbology:

  • The shading of a country can illustrate either of two totally separate datasets – whether or not a country has confirmed cases of swine flu, and whether or not the country has “very high” or “high” levels of acute respiratory distress. Each type of symbol – shading of a geographic area, outlining of a geographic area, points, diamonds, etc. – should illustrate only one dataset. Otherwise, the map is inconsistent. Using the WaPo‘s map, we have no way to determine whether or not a country with notable levels of acute respiratory distress actually has confirmed cases of swine flu.
  • The width of the bars in the bar chart illustrating confirmed fatalities remains the same, even when the period of time each bar represents changes. The bar representing deaths between April 24 and May 3 is the same width as the bar representing fatalities between May 3 and June 4.
  • The graduated circles representing cumulative deaths by country are often larger than the countries they’re superimposed upon. This creates difficulty ascertaining which circles belong to which countries.
  • Some visual elements distract more than elaborate. Specifically, the labeling of continents and of the United States.

Using our FluTracker data, we’ve created a map responding to these concerns.

View full size | Source: FluTracker. Graphic: Andrew Macurak, Rhiza Labs.

Our response directly addresses these points:

  • The data is more complete and timely. (Learn why.)
  • The shading of each country illustrates only one dataset: cumulative fatalities.
  • Whether or not a country has confirmed H1N1 cases is illustrated with a pattern, which can be superimposed on the shading that illustrates cumulative fatalities without detracting from its meaning.
  • Each bar in the bar chart represents the same amount of time.

Like we said it’s not perfect. A better map might show the respiratory distress dataset as a symbol in the center of each country and block out each country as a solid color instead of with its topographic features. Still, this map illustrates the fact that, using simple and accessible tools, any user can create a map that is meaningful and effectively communicates complex data. By making powerful tools accessible to the public, anyone can respond to the infographics and data presented to us in the media.