This is the third post in a 3-part series covering Meredith Boyter Newlove’s career and examples of her consequential work with the CDC.

Meredith Boyter Newlove is a health communicator specializing in creative data visualization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. She and her “data viz” colleagues make up one of six specialized creative teams that support all CDC Centers and Emergency Responses including COVID-19, Zika, and Ebola. Meredith earned dual BFAs in Graphic Design and Scientific Illustration (2004) from the University of Georgia and a Master of Science (2008) from the Medical Illustration Graduate Program at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) now Augusta University. Driven by a love of color, design, nature, and people, Meredith considers her work in global public health—surrounded by top-notch creatives and experts in science and communications—her dream job and a true privilege.

Can you show us an example of your work that demonstrates how visual principles can turn data into meaningful messages with broad reach?

Sure. First, some background on the project: 

In April 2020, CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer Isaac Ghinai, MD and colleagues published an article titled, “Community Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at Two Family Gatherings — Chicago, Illinois, February–March 2020” in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). The article details an outbreak in a Chicago community, the contact tracing investigation that ensued, its findings and their meaning. Inside the article’s pages, a simple investigation diagram (see below) would soon take on a new life.

Timeline of the Chicago cluster contact tracing investigation. The timeline depicts events and symptom onsets by investigation day. Individual patients (cases) are labeled by family cluster (A or B), then by their place in the assumed pathway of infection spread – transmission generations 1-4. The number after the dot in each label designates the patients’ sequence within each transmission generation (1–7). As we look across the diagram, the use of color and different line types creates the contrasts and details we magnified in our animation.

My colleague, Brad Myers, MPH, proposed that we develop an animation to turn the Chicago contact tracing investigation into a compelling story of community spread. In his own words:

At the time of the MMWR publication reviewing the investigation of the outbreak in Chicago, (April 2020) there was still limited awareness or detailed documentation regarding the spread of the COVID-19 Virus, especially among group gatherings. While the illustration within the MMWR report provided some visual context to the findings, I felt that  public understanding of the speed and scope of the spread from even one case, could be significantly enhanced if we developed an animation version of the MMWR visual. Thanks to support from MMWR leadership, the concept we developed was approved. My hope was that if executed wellwhich it was, thanks to Meredith, other artists within DCS and the participation of Dr. Ghinai—and distributed through social channels, the animation could enhance support for prevention measures such as social distancing, wearing of face coverings, and recommendations on avoiding gatherings.

Screenshot from the updated “How COVID-19 Spreads in a Community” video. New markers and color coding make transmission of the virus easier to follow through family clusters (letters) and generations (numbers). Color codes indicate whether a COVID-19 case was confirmed (red), probably (orange), resulted in hospitalization (teal), or resulted in death (black).

How COVID-19 Spreads in a Community” takes the viewer on a ‘street-level’ journey through groups and settings in which the virus spread in a matter of days and documents the hospitalizations and deaths that occurred along the path.

To create this video on a compressed timeline, I partnered with a talented producer and motion graphics specialist in our branch. We started with the story’s key players: the people, the places, and the consequences. I referenced the article’s original diagram to design a stylized, map-like landscape of symbols color coded by setting, infection, illness, hospitalization, and death. Following a script composed and voiced by the author, Dr. Ghinai, I created a storyboard and developed visual assets for use in the animation. We created an animated 3D world in which community members gather, then selectively develop illness, become hospitalized, and die. Key settings are marked with “pins” you might see on a familiar navigation app like Google Maps. At the end of the animation, you see a conceptual timeline of the investigation and are reminded to stay home and continue socially distancing to prevent getting sick and infecting the people around you.

Through simple visuals and voiceover, this detailed epidemiological process became a human story. The original upload was viewed over 412K  times on YouTube and a new upload can be shared on social media!

Learn 5 strategies for the visual communication of science in our S.P.A.R.K. online course!

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