Migrant workers have always played vital roles in communities across the world, and the pandemic has made their contributions even more visible. Without these frontline heroes—nurses, delivery drivers, supermarket clerks—our economies and societies, let alone the COVID-19 economic recovery, simply could not function.
This is the focus of Key Workers, an aptly named data visualization project that shows just how important migrant workers have been in the response to the COVID-19 crisis. The winner of the Data Design category in Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards, the project was created by information designer Federica Fragapane and designer and developer Alex Piacentini. With clear yet striking visuals, it shines a light on a portion of the population whose contributions are often hidden, whose skills are undervalued, and whose worth has long been overlooked.
“Sometimes [migrants] are taken for granted, we wanted to make them more visible,” says Fragapane. “The main message was awareness.” Key Workers was created in collaboration with Marta Foresti of ODI, a London-based think tank focusing on international development and humanitarian issues. In April 2020, ODI was working on a list of stories about migrants contributing to the pandemic. The list came in a spreadsheet; it had to come alive.
“I wanted to give shape to this story,” says Fragapane. And so, it began with the shape of a tree. The visualization opens on a landing page punctuated by the illustrations of five trees, which could be likened to a blossoming baby’s breath. Each tree represents a different geographical region (Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia and Oceania, and Africa). Stemming from each tree, larger branches represent sectors like healthcare and agriculture, and smaller branches illustrate national or local levels of action. Each branch culminates in a small red bud, representing a reform, new initiative, or campaign that relates to migrants’ contribution to the pandemic response.
Fragapane says the shape of the tree was a perfect metaphor for something that is long rooted in society (migrants’ contributions) as well as something that needs to grow (society’s awareness of their contributions). “I wanted to focus on something that’s growing from inside, that’s already there,” she says.
To navigate the dataset, you can choose a geographical region, or hover over each bud or dot and jump straight to the initiative it represents. Once you make your decision, you enter a screen that is split in two with a timeline running down the middle; one half focuses on the story, the other lets you navigate through the platform. For example, if you were to choose Africa, you could read about Somalia’s decision to send a team of more than 20 doctors from the Somali National University in Mogadishu to Italy, to help fight COVID-19 on March 27, 2020. And if you hover all the way down to December 16, 2020, you can learn about Sudan’s commitment to vaccinating high-risk groups, including the 2.1 million people living in displacement.
The first version of Key Workers was published around May 2020, but the dataset is updated regularly. “Stories now are around community access to vaccines,” says Fragapane. Knowing there would be more data, and therefore more branches, she focused on an evocative yet clean design: no frills, no decorations. “I work with different gradients and textures, but in terms of visual elements, I don’t want to add anything that doesn’t have an informative purpose,” she says.
For Fragapane, it all comes down to a sense of responsibility. When handling so much data, she says accuracy is important, but so is honesty. “There’s always a human intervention behind the data being collected,” she says. Perhaps for this reason, combining numbers and words with visual elements and clear legends was particularly crucial. “A few years ago, there was a misconception in this field that a very good graphic doesn’t need words,” she says. “But we don’t learn how to read graphics,” she says. “It’s important to use words and combine them with visuals.”
This synergy between words and graphics feels particularly poignant in a project like Key Workers, which underscores just how valuable migrant workers are to our society. Fragapane’s design conveys clear information with engaging visuals; it also gives migrants a voice when, all too often, theirs have been muted.
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