Social distancing: Three data-driven simulations will show you just how important it is

We’ve now entered the month of May, which means that it’s been over three months since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S.—and for many of us, it means that we have been practicing some form of social distancing for at least a month. (And believe us, we completely understand if it feels like much longer than that.)

We’re now at the point where many countries, the U.S. included, are starting to look to the future and what needs to happen in order to safely begin to reopen parts of the economy. While the path forward is still uncertain, we’re beginning to understand that social distancing may be a fixture for many more months to come. A team of scientists at Harvard modeled the data and predicted that in the U.S., we may have to practice social distancing, at least in some capacity, through 2022.

Yes, we’re all hoping that’s not the case. But as much of a drag as social distancing can be, it’s essential for curbing the spread of the pandemic. Simulations can be a helpful reminder of this fact. We’ve collected a few that use data to illustrate just how easy it is for COVID-19 to spread, how many people we can come into contact with on a given day, and why it’s so important to limit interactions.

Simulation 1: Watch how shockingly easy it is for COVID-19 to spread

For this incredible—and alarming—simulation, a team at The New York Times modeled data from the Kyoto Institute of Technology to show just how far an infectious droplet can extend out of a cough. We’ve all heard by now that we’re supposed to stay six feet apart to prevent spread. “But as this simulation suggests, and scientists have argued, droplets can travel farther than six feet,” the simulation creators note. “And small droplets known as aerosols can remain suspended or travel through the air before they eventually settle on surfaces. This [simulation shows] how they could disperse over the next 20 minutes.”

You can see through this simulation that the closer you are to someone who coughs or sneezes, the more likely you are to come into contact with the virus, should they be infected with it. But that doesn’t mean those outside the six-foot radius are immune. The way the simulation clearly shows how the tiny droplets spread and linger in the air should give anyone pause as they navigate outside their own homes.

Simulation 2: See how quickly a virus like COVID-19 can move through a community

Back in March, when many communities were just beginning to implement social distancing policies, The Washington Post came out with a simulation that convinced a lot of people that the steps they were taking were justified. Harry Stevens, the Post’s graphics reporter, modeled the spread of a disease called “simulitis” through a community of around 200 people. In the simulation, we can see how the disease spreads under different scenarios: no preventative measures, forced quarantine, and social distancing.

How quickly the disease spreads through the community with no measures in place, versus with seven out of every eight people staying inside and social distancing, is remarkable. Of course, this simulation is simplified—it’s intended to model disease spread in the most clear and digestible way, so people can understand the value and ripple effects of their individual actions.

Simulation 3: See how your own decisions affect a pandemic situation

By developing a simulation called People of the Pandemic, data visualization artist Shirley Wu wanted to give people a way to more viscerally understand how their actions connect to the spread of disease. While Wu designed the game to help people understand the importance of social distancing in the context of COVID-19, she stresses that the numbers she used to build the model are not reflective of COVID-19 data. “Simulating COVID-19 data at the individual level is near impossible at this time,” Wu says. “We tried to get our numbers as close as possible to what we know about the virus, but it’s not exact.”

When you play the People of the Pandemic game, you can enter your zip code (if you live in the U.S.) or select a community size (urban, suburban, or rural) to start. Wu pulled in real data on communities across the U.S., as well as data on the number of locally available hospital beds, to create the context. Once you’re in the game, you can see dots representing people moving around the community, visiting other homes, shops, or cafes. As you play, you can decide how many times you go out, and see where your decisions fall in relation to what your community is doing on the whole. You can see how the decisions you make relate to the number of cases and the availability of hospital beds. “I wanted to create a simulation that made understanding the data and how a disease can spread more approachable from an individual standpoint,” Wu says. “Because social distancing is still a new concept for people, I wanted to make it less ambiguous and show what the real-life consequences could be.”

As you’ve probably been spending much more time indoors and away from other people than usual, simulations like these—that draw on data analysis and modeling—are helpful for showing the ripple effects of our actions, whether it's a cough or a trip to the store. Even if we don’t yet have certainty about what the path out of COVID-19 will look like, these simulations remind us that social distancing really can make a difference.

During COVID-19, Tableau is sharing resources and information on how data is being used to understand and address the pandemic. To learn more, visit the COVID-19 Data Resource Hub.

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