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We need a flattened curve hero


Disease and plague stalk the land. Panic and fear grips our hearts and makes us buy all the toilet paper. What we need is a hero, and one has emerged: the Flatten the Curve infographic. In two simple lines, a single image says: “This is why we need to take it seriously, but don’t freak out either.”

I’ve been trying to find the original source of this graphic. The earliest instance I’ve found so far is a 2007 CDC report entitled Interim pre-pandemic planning guidance : community strategy for pandemic influenza mitigation in the United States : early, targeted, layered use of nonpharmaceutical interventions.

When the CDC updated the report in 2017 with Community mitigation guidelines to prevent pandemic influenza, the graphic got a bit of a reboot, although in some ways it moved further away from the “Flatten the Curve” we’re seeing today.

The Economist’s Rosamund Pearce picked up the original, rejigged it slightly, and came out with this graphic:

The Economist’s (re)discovery of the graphic brought it to public attention, but the real genius of the current iteration has been to remove a lot of the labels and add a line showing the health care system’s capacity. This innovation is attributed to population health analyst Dr Drew Harris by the New York Times.

Harris’ graphic maximises Edward Tufte’s hallowed measure of data-to-ink ratio (or the modern data-to-pixel ratio), and it’s since taken off and been re-interpreted across the internet. I’m quite partial to Vox’s interpretation:

If you’re looking for a fluffier and cuter (and arguably even simpler) version, New Zealand microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles has got you fam.

If, however, you’re a cynical bastard, Mattias Geniar argues on his blog that the Flatten the Curve axes labels are incorrect, and it makes a lot more sense if they’re labelled “# of deaths” vs “Cost in €”. “The balancing act isn’t about infection numbers vs. time. It’s about deaths vs. economic cost. Now it makes sense to me.” Dark, bro.

  • Journalist, developer, community builder, newsletter creator and international man of mystery, Jason was one of the first South Africans to really grasp the importance of data in the newsroom and has remained one step ahead of the trends in the field all the way. Even Naked Data was conceived before email newsletters were cool again. But what does that tell you about the measure of the man? Nothing, that's what. He hides the superman CV behind a truly mild-mannered and overly modest persona and is best described as "one of the nicest guys in the business". When he's angry, it is righteously so, and his anger always wears velvet mittens. The true signs of his genius include the ability to create multilingual puns on demand (witness the alternative Naked Data strap "Putting the heita in to data") and the fact that he offered me a job. (AO)

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