The Lowdown Hub

Graphics of the year — making sense of 2021Visualisation has become increasingly important

From Covid charts to maps of climate change, technological explainers to chronicles of human tragedy, we are living in an era that is increasingly captured by visual reporting.

Graphics have a language as rich and expressive as the written word. Those selected here by the FTData team, from the thousands produced in 2021, might variously inspire feelings of awe, admiration, shock and fear.

Across disparate themes, what really unifies this collection is the intention to show context. Without it, information is meaningless and decisions ill-informed. A graphic may be worth a thousand words. But at times like this, they may well be worth significantly more. Alan Smith, head of visual and data journalism

Powered flight, with a twist

On December 17 1903, the Wright brothers achieved the first flight of a powered aircraft when Orville Wright piloted their Wright Flyer for 12 seconds, travelling 36 metres. On April 19 2021, a small swatch of muslin from the brothers’ first aircraft made history and a profound statement about human technological achievement when it flew again, but this time on another planet. Attached to Ingenuity, Nasa’s Mars helicopter, it completed a flight of 39.1 seconds, ascending vertically to 3 metres over the red planet’s surface.

Ingenuity had reached Mars attached to the underside of the Perseverance rover, which had left Earth on an Atlas V rocket in July 2020. By the time of the 118th anniversary of the Wrights’ achievement, Ingenuity had flown 18 times, covering nearly 4km in flights of more than 30 minutes in total.

When it came to visualising this achievement, technology played a role too. Rather than simply draw an illustration, it is now faster and more flexible to create 3D models using an iPad and Apple Pencil. Here’s an interactive view of the model from which the artwork above was derived. Ian Bott, graphic artist

Beating the odds

Emma Raducanu, a Wimbledon debutant was just 18 years of age and ranked 338th in the world, when she became the first British wild card player to progress to the women’s singles fourth round in more than 20 years.

To visualise her remarkable achievement, in the context of the tournament’s history, meant extracting the names of wild card players from more than 80 PDF files and matching them to their performance in Wimbledon matches from 1977 onwards — the year that the system was introduced. The result, as the title of the graphic makes clear, is that most wild cards do not progress beyond the first round.

But the graphic also hints at another issue. Many of the world’s lower-ranked players struggle to break even financially. The wild card system plays an important role in bringing players on the fringes of the game to the elite stage and the prize money earned, even in the lower rounds, can support future tours.

Raducanu commented that her Wimbledon prize money would help to fund involvement in other tournaments. It worked. Two months later, at the US Open, she became the first singles qualifier in the Open Era to win a Grand Slam title and finished the year ranked in the world’s top 20 players. Chris Campbell, visual journalist and Patrick Mathurin, senior statistical journalist

A deadly landmark is reached

On the night of November 24, the English Channel became the site of one of the deadliest tragedies along the migratory route linking the European continent to the UK. A makeshift inflatable dinghy carrying 30 displaced people capsized, causing the deaths of 27 of those on board. It was the largest single loss of life in the Channel since the UN’s migration agency, the IOM, started recording data in 2014.

The very high-profile route has become increasingly popular with people desperate to reach Britain — up to November 25, at least 26,611 people had made the crossing during 2021, three times more than in 2020. This has given many the false impression that the number of people seeking to reach the UK’s shores has soared. In fact, asylum applications in the country fell to 29,456 in 2020, after peaking at 84,132 in 2002.

The pandemic lockdowns have meant that traditional routes to Britain, via aeroplane or by stowing on passenger ferries or lorries, were cut off due to increased restrictions on travel. As a result, people seeking to flee conflict, poverty or persecution have increasingly attempted the journey in small, unseaworthy boats. In total, an estimated 196 migrants have been recorded dead or missing in the English Channel since 2014, 44 died this year alone. Federica Cocco, statistics journalist

Climate change, smoke signals

One of my responsibilities is to produce a weekly climate graphic, but choosing just one chart to try to sum up 2021 was tricky. There were the floods in Europe and China, deadly heatwaves in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, and the “longest and deadliest” tornado event in US history in the country’s south and Midwest to name but a few of the most extreme weather events this year.

But the summer was all about wildfires. While the US and southern European blazes captured most of the headlines, fires were raging in the remote Siberian republic of Sakha.

The Siberian wildfires released almost three times as much carbon into the atmosphere than those in North America in the summer of 2021, according to data from Copernicus, the EU observation programme. At one point smoke from Russian wildfires reached all the way across the North Pole to hit Greenland and Canada.

Climate scientists say these extreme weather events could become much more common, as the planet continues to heat up because of global warming. Meanwhile some climate scientists calculate that the optimistic pledges and net zero targets set by countries at November’s COP26 climate summit have just a 50 per cent chance of keeping global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the early 2030s.

Steven Bernard, senior visual journalist

Mapping a pandemic

Covering Covid-19 in the US means sifting through a sea of data to identify the most relevant metric to tell the story at hand, a task that shifts daily with the rapidly evolving pandemic. Visual workhorses such as line and bar charts have been essential to convey expected indicators, like case and death numbers, but they often cannot display the vast diversity of the country.

After realising that the expected inverse relationship between vaccination rates and case numbers was fracturing in parts of the US in the autumn, I employed bivariate charts — which use a grid of colour combinations across two colour scales to show the relationship between variables — to highlight this.

By applying a bivariate colour scale firstly to vaccination rates and then either case or hospitalisation rates for every US state in August and November, it was possible to attach a colour to every possible intersection of the two variables. For instance teal represented highly vaccinated, low case rate states.

In creating this colour scale grid — with necessary annotations to guide the reader — it was possible to visualise how the relationship between Covid-19 vaccinations and recorded cases altered in different regions of the US, painting a much more vivid and nuanced picture of how the virus spread. Caitlin Gilbert, data journalist

The connected world

How does Europe get its gas? The question became acute in autumn for everyone from politicians to consumers and gas companies, as the continent grappled with a supply crisis that threatened to derail the economic recovery from the pandemic in the EU and UK alike.

In some countries prices soared to almost five times the level of a year earlier, while stocks ran so low there were fears a winter even slightly colder than normal could cut supplies to industry, with households paying the price.

By unearthing maps of Europe’s gas network and visualising the criss-crossing nexus of pipelines, we revealed exactly how the continent is supplied with gas — and highlighted its reliance on Russia.

But to show the geopolitical complexity of the story, we had to go beyond the map, and this Sankey diagram was a great way to highlight Asia’s mammoth consumption of natural gas. China’s demand alone has doubled in the past decade and is expected to accelerate further as it tries to reduce coal use. Japan and South Korea are also turning to natural gas as they attempt to curb emissions, further putting the squeeze on Europe.

Mapping Europe’s gas network also enabled us to show readers the physical complexity of the “connected world” — a reminder that supply chains, trade routes and pipelines remain vital to maintaining the global economy regardless of technological advancements.

Sam Joiner, visual stories editor