“I don’t want this job.”
It was late March, and Lauren Gardner, an engineer and epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, was questioning her decision to create an online dashboard for tracking COVID-19 cases and deaths around the world. She and her team had spent a long night in January scanning local news sources in China, intending to create a data set that other researchers could utilise. Before posting a link to their work on Twitter, Gardner had decided to visualise the data on a map in order to make it easier to parse. “Humans are horrible at statistics,” she says, and “presenting raw numbers is really tricky.”
The response was electric. In a matter of weeks, the user-friendly dashboard had attracted users not just in pandemic command centres around the world—from Italy’s health ministry to Connecticut’s governor’s office to the White House—but on social media, where fellow scientists, journalists, and armchair virus trackers followed its rising case counts with growing alarm. As of mid-June, the dashboard has garnered 650 million cumulative page views, making it one of the most popular sites in the world.
But for Gardner, co-director of Johns Hopkins’s Centre for Systems Science and Engineering and a specialist in the role of mobility in spreading disease, the dashboard’s success only underscored the problems with our public health infrastructure, particularly in the United States. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s data has been “very, very poor,” she lamented. The organisation “is reliant on the states to get data to them, and not all states comply. . . It would be really nice if we could learn some lessons and come out of this with a better plan in terms of how we collect and provide and share data so that I don’t ever have to deal with this again.”
Even some of the world’s top medical experts are continuing to struggle to find accurate data about the novel coronavirus. In May, for example, the CDC was reporting that California had conducted 925,000 tests, while the California Department of Public Health was saying that it had conducted more than 1.1 million. CDC numbers differed from states’ own testing numbers by more than 150,000 in Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas, as well, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
“CDC should be putting all this data forward, including deaths by race, by location, by age,” says Andy Slavitt, who served as acting administrator of the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama. “We’re not asking for perfection, just for transparency. Right now, medical providers and hospitals aren’t even providing data to CDC on what treatments are working.”
That has left entrepreneurial researchers such as Gardner with the painstaking task of finding and verifying local sources of coronavirus data, and then updating it as new numbers pour in. It’s a never-ending process, particularly on such a global scale, but Gardner is committed to keeping her dashboard up-to-date and available to all. Her team has grown from two graduate students to two dozen-—plus professors, university staff, and support from mapping software provider Esri and Amazon Web Services. Since February, she has been waking up to hundreds of emails from around the world, some complimentary, and some complaining of inaccuracies. (Site visitors from France have been particularly exacting about perceived delays in her calculations, and after criticism on social media, she adopted the State Department’s naming conventions for contested states like Taiwan.) Gardner herself is only too aware of the problems. “This is just reported cases; it’s not true cases,” she says of the numbers displayed on her dashboard.
“There are probably 10 to 20 times as many cases in the world as are reported in our dashboard. Almost surely.” She has begun to normalise the data so that visitors can understand COVID–19’s spread by more useful metrics, such as incidence rates, case–fatality ratios, and U.S. testing and hospitalisation rates.
In the absence of strong, centralised public health leadership—and in the presence of digital platforms that thrive on misinformation—-Gardner increasingly believes that it is the role of individual scientists to speak up, whether on TV or on Twitter. “While it is super time-consuming and distracting, I feel like it’s my responsibility to share things that I know, rather than just watching [celebrities like] Jenny McCarthy tell people they shouldn’t get vaccinated,” she says. “You have to put yourself out there.”
Now more than ever, she believes it is critical for scientists to use statistics—the right, contextualised statistics—to paint a picture that the public can understand. “Why isn’t there a national vaccination data set at a county level?” she asks. She recently built one, for measles.
Investigative reporter, Miami Herald
Jeffrey Epstein was still flying on private jets in late 2018 when the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown published an investigative series detailing his trafficking and sexual abuse of girls as young as 14. Much of the world had forgotten that he’d pleaded guilty a decade earlier to soliciting a minor for prostitution. Even more lost to history was the role of then U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta, who led the prosecution.
But when President Trump nominated Acosta to be labor secretary, in 2017, Brown knew the story warranted a fresh look. She spent the next several months amassing documents and identifying 80 of Epstein’s former victims. “The more I learned about it,” she says, the odder it seemed—especially a secret plea deal led by Acosta. Soon after Brown’s series was published, the Justice Department began investigating the plea deal, and by summer 2019, Epstein had been indicted for creating a “vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit.” By the time he was found dead in his cell while awaiting trial, he had become the most notorious face of the #MeToo era, while Brown stood as an inspiring example of a local journalist’s pursuit of the truth. She is now writing a book about her work, and Adam McKay is developing a project based on it for HBO. Asked where she thinks her efforts have made the most impact, Brown gets choked up. “It’s definitely the women,” she says. “They didn’t think anyone gave a fuck about them before the series ran. It changed their lives.”
Creator, Steven Universe
Rebecca Sugar’s animated show, Steven Universe, has followed its titular character and his family—three gender non-binary aliens who protect Earth from threats—through 174 episodes, a movie, a video game, 300 original songs, and seven years. Along the way, the Cartoon Network series has broken numerous barriers, unapologetically exploring LGBTQIA+ themes and childhood anxiety through a lens of unrelenting positivity and acceptance. The final season, which concluded in March, presciently addressed panic
attacks and PTSD, topics which have become more
acute in the age of COVID–19, and helps viewers find understanding amid any trauma they’re experiencing. “Different personalities will handle this in wildly different ways, and that’s fine,” Sugar says. “Let yourself handle this in whatever way you specifically need to.”
It’s not a distinction Monica Lewinsky is proud of, but in many ways she was patient zero for cyberbullying. Today, she’s a leading voice in the fight against online public shaming. “The Epidemic,” a public awareness spot she launched with BBDO New York in October 2019, drew national media attention. It follows a teen girl whose digital torment by peers is depicted as a medical emergency, and it is told from two perspectives—her parents’ and her own—building to a harrowing climax. “We often pay attention when we see physical pain,” Lewinsky says.
“But emotional pain is not as immediately obvious.” Lewinsky is now extending her activism as a producer on the third season of FX’s American Crime Story (about the Clinton impeachment case) and in a documentary for HBO Max called 15 Minutes of Shame.
Poet and defence attorney
Reginald Dwayne Betts published his third volume of poetry, Felon, to the kinds of reviews last fall that writers dream of. The poems themselves, however, were born out of the nightmare he experienced for more than eight years as a prisoner after being convicted, at age 16, of carjacking. Following his 2005 release, Betts earned a BA and an MFA, published a memoir, earned a law degree from Yale, and worked as a public defender. Felon illuminates the inequalities of the criminal justice system by turning its own language against itself. Four poems feature redacted sections of legal documents filed on behalf of incarcerated people seeking relief because they could not afford bail. “These [court] documents are the foundation of our legal system,” Betts says. “They are written in obfuscating legalese. Poetry is the opposite of inaccessible, if it’s done well.”
Melina Matsoukas’s first feature film, Queen & Slim, starring Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a couple forced to go on the run after killing a police officer in selfdefense, is stylish, sexy—and unflinching in its portrayal of American racism. The November 2019 film was inspired, after all, by videos of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner during their fateful police encounters and feels even more relevant today. “I watched the video of [Sandra] standing
up for herself, and I related to it so much,” says Matsoukas, known previously for her high-profile music videos and HBO’s Insecure, for which she serves as an
“It’s an experience many Black people can relate to.”
How did you decide to become a director? I came from a politically minded family, and I was brought up to give back and [fight] for people’s rights. The weaponry that you chose was up to you. I felt like film could be my weapon. I also grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and was an MTV baby. So while everybody else was creating short films at film school, I was making music videos for my friends.
You directed Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, which is filled with references to institutional racism and Black pride. Were you conscious of using filmmaking as a form of activism? I wanted to represent [Black] culture in a way that we hadn’t seen before, in a celebratory way. I also wanted to speak to struggle and trauma. It was exciting for both of us to step into that visually. Beyoncé was brave with a lot of the imagery. I had never visualised her as a political artist before, and I hadn’t done that in my own work before. That was a turning point.
Did you and Queen & Slim writer and coproducer Lena Waithe get any pushback from production executives about the political nature of the film? We worked with an [independent studio] called Makeready. Lena and I had the final cut. We didn’t take notes from anyone except ourselves.
Senior curator of design and digital design, architecture and digital, V&A Museum
How does a 168-year-old museum
stay relevant in the 21st century? To Corinna Gardner, senior curator of design and digital at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the answer is simple: collect objects that are important to people right now. The Rapid Response Collecting program she created in 2014 has ushered more than 35 unconventional recent designs into the V&A’s hallowed halls, from the world’s first 3D-printed gun to an Ikea stuffed animal that became a potent symbol of political protest in Hong Kong. “It’s about bringing design objects into the museum at the time they are the subject of popular conversation,” she says. Digital artifacts are increasingly a top priority. In 2019, she acquired the visual identity of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (consisting of a digital file of its hourglass logo, among other things) alongside the open-source website the group uses to disseminate information to 59 countries around the world—proof that the medium is as important as the message. Gardner is inspired by new creative design ideas that demonstrate “how we are coming together as a society to find comfort at a time of crisis,” she says, citing 3D-printed ventilator valves, adapters that make it possible to open doors without touching them, and a website that urges you to stop touching your face.
The A-frame Coral Greenhouse—the largest MOUA installation—is set on the sea floor of the John Brewer Reef and is accessible to snorkelers and scuba divers, who can swim through the 137-ton structure to view it up close.
Instead of typical plants, this greenhouse grows coral. Taylor placed 22 sculptures of gardeners inside the structure. They—along with all of the greenhouse’s pots and shelves—are made of pH-neutral marine cement that is amenable to coral growth.
Taylor plans to install monitors to record indicators of the reef’s health, such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, and salinity. “When tourists scuba dive the site, it will evolve from being a water-sports activity to both a marine science and a cultural experience,” he says.
Illustration by Matt Chinworth
Founder and sculptor, Museum of Underwater Art
As a marine sculptor, Jason deCaires Taylor has made the ocean his showroom of choice: He has installed more than a thousand cement sculptures in marine “museums” around the world, from Indonesia to Mexico. In April, he debuted two of his most ambitious—and technically challenging—installations yet, as part of the Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA) in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which will eventually encompass four artworks. On a mission, he says, to “change how we view our natural worlds,” Taylor’s pieces incorporate elements that convey how warming ocean temperatures are devastating marine life. His Ocean Siren sculpture, for example, a stainless steel and acrylic figure of a young girl that rises above the water off a pier in northern Queensland, has solar-powered lights that change color, in real time, based on the water temperature in the nearby reef. The sculpture turns dark red when temperatures reach levels that can cause coral bleaching, offering a bleak visual cue to people onshore to what’s happening beyond their sight. Here’s a closer look at Taylor’s other completed MOUA installation, the Coral Greenhouse.
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