Why It’s So Freaking Hard To Make A Good COVID-19 Model by Jasmine Mithani

We started working on this story in late March or early April 2020 as we were trying to understand what was happening all around us, and what all the models being thrown out by epidemiologists actually meant. The story was originally going to be a more straight-forward interactive, a la “explorable explanations” where we would walk our readers through the epidemiological modeling process and then allow them to build their own simulation.

As we tried to simplify the topic enough to create a model of a model, we found there were too many unknowns and too many exceptions. Do we include this variable? Or this one? There were no clear answers, no matter how many experts we interviewed. So then the idea became — what if this is the story? What if there is no right answer?

What started out as sticky notes attempting to make sense of factors evolved into a flow chart. I wrote out all the text and highlighter scribbles by hand, uploading them and editing vectors in Adobe Illustrator. We wanted to evoke something drawn on the back of a napkin — something sketchy, a mental model, something incomplete and ever-changing. I went a little bit literal with the concept.

After selecting the color story, our art director added colored backgrounds on key terms to reinforce how the parts of the visualization related to the concepts we were explaining in the text. Custom dividers and feature image art reflected the visualization, adding to a magazine feature feel.