Data visualizations turn numbers into a story

The tsunami of coronavirus news coverage can paradoxically make it hard to find the information you want. When I log on first thing in the morning, I search for the latest COVID-19 case numbers. The best way to absorb that data is a quick glance at a chart or graph.

The fact that information is often better conveyed with images rather than words is not news to associate digital editor Helen Thompson. She’s the creative mind behind many of our website’s beguiling video explainers, including a recent one on how an element earns a place on the periodic table.

Having previously covered Ebola outbreaks, Thompson knew that contact tracing is key to slowing disease transmission. She wanted to show how looking at clusters of infections has helped researchers figure out how the coronavirus spreads in common settings. It’s clear from just a glance at her data visualization that infections can spread widely in crowded indoor settings like ships and prisons, and that transmission within households is more common. “That’s the power of data viz,” she told me. “You can convey something in an instant that would take a paragraph.”

To make the visualization, Thompson dove into a massive dataset of COVID-19 clusters worldwide, compiled by researchers at the London School of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene. She siphoned some of the data from the team’s Google Sheets into Tableau, data visualization software often used by journalists. “It’s an easier way to see trends, what countries were the most common, what settings were the most common,” Thompson says. “I threw in the indoor-outdoor variable as a color; the difference was so stark.”

Thompson worked with the researchers to make sure she interpreted the data correctly. She even added clusters to the database, including a wedding in Jordan where 76 of the roughly 360 attendees became infected. “People are thinking about whether they’re going to go to family gatherings,” Thompson notes. “My college roommate is going to a wedding in August, so I’m really nervous.”

Data visualizations are complicated, labor-intensive beasts. Thompson mocked up multiple versions and tested how people interpreted them with help from the Science News staff plus some college roommates. She collaborated with design director Erin Otwell, features editor Cori Vanchieri and digital director Kate Travis to create different products for print and online. The online version is especially impressive; you can hover over the circles representing clusters and get details on each one.

And while you’re on our site, take a gander at some of Thompson’s other work. I’m particularly fond of the video of tiny legless larvae leaping into the air, accompanied by Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The Texas native with a wry sense of humor says she’s partial to mixing science and music. She set a video on the physics of peacock twerking to the overture from “The Barber of Seville.” “I grew up being forced to listen to a lot of opera,” she says. (You can find our visualizations and videos at

So thanks to Helen’s parents for all that opera, and to Thompson herself for bringing science into sharp focus.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.