Visualizing the COVID-19 pandemic

Hello, everyone. My name is Hyunwoo Park, and I am an assistant professor in the Management Sciences department. One of my focus areas of research and teaching is to use and teach the power of visualization in digesting a pile of data. It’s my pleasure to say hello to you through this short piece.

In this piece, I would like to curate some YouTube videos that use data visualization to illustrate epidemic models and describe the data from the COVID-19 pandemic. I tried to pick videos that are both well-grounded as well as practically relevant so that you can learn about a classic epidemiological model and appreciate the value of data visualization.

You might have heard about the model called the SIR model. It’s a classic mathematical epidemiological model that describes how disease spreads in a population of agents. Each letter of SIR represents one of three states of an agent in the population: susceptible, infected, and recovered. The following video is a beautiful simulation of an epidemic using an agent-based simulation of the SIR model. It demonstrates which countermeasures could work effectively to mitigate the spread of disease.

Simulating an epidemic

The Coronavirus Curve - Numberphile [Watch from around 13 mins]

As you can see from these videos, one factor that makes it so hard for a human to intuitively make sense of where we are on the curve is that the growth curve is exponential. Our natural mental model of prediction seems to be inclined to a linear model, which makes us prone to overshoot or undershoot compared to reality. The following video graphically explains how to make sense of an exponential curve and be better at identifying the inflection point.

Exponential growth and epidemics

These videos teach you the model behind an epidemic, and here's one video I found about the current COVID-19 progression using the actual data. This video shows a series of key events that happened over the COVID-19 pandemic to the present day. I would call it visual storytelling, which is to augment your narrative using data visualization.

Coronavirus World Map Timelapse - How the virus spread (Jan 1 to Apr 12)

Visual storytelling has gained significant traction over the past few years. A few years ago, people were impressed just by looking at some cool data visualizations. But then, people serious about data visualization started realizing that, in order to prevent data visualization from becoming just eye candy, it eventually has to be threaded into the core storyline that you want to tell.

Tableau is a leading company in data visualization and dashboard design. I think one of the reasons why Tableau is leading the field is because it quickly incorporates this type of evolving needs from practitioners of data visualization in everyday work. In the following video, two people at Tableau curated a few interesting visualizations on COVID-19 with some commentaries.

If Data Could Talk: COVID-19 

Indeed, they have been quick to leverage this COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity (in a good sense) to invite people to explore data themselves. For instance, they set up this website that hosts the live data on COVID-19.

COVID-19 Global Data Tracker

I understand some of these resources may be something you've already come across, but I hope this short piece introduces to some of you the value of visualization.

Thank you for reading and I hope all of you and your family are staying safe and well!

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