Understanding Pandemic Spread: Staples Grad’s Simulation Goes Viral

Much has been written about the spread of COVID-19, and the importance of social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine.

But it’s one thing to read about protective measures. It’s another thing entirely to watch them unfold.

Thanks to Washington Post graphics report Harry Stevens, we can.

And — because the 2004 Staples High School graduate’s piece on the virus has been shared relentlessly by readers — so can the rest of the world.

The “corona simulator” (click here to see) provides vivid evidence of how a disease spreads through a population. Moving dots represent healthy, sick and recovered people.

The dots move randomly, interacting with other dots. Importantly, each viewing of Stevens’ simulation is different. My random sample is different from yours. In fact, each time you scroll up and look at the graphic again, it’s different.

A static screenshot of Harry Stevens’ moving simulation.

That illustrates the randomness of our encounters with each other. But the key finding is usually the same: Extensive distancing is the best way to slow the spread of disease.

(There is one unrealistic element to his moving graphs, the story notes: Dots don’t “disappear” when someone “dies.”)

Harry Stevens (Photo/ Sarah L. Voisin for The Washington Post)

Stevens’ route to the Washington Post began in another down time: the recession of 2008. After acting in Staples Players and college, he graduated at a time of few enticing professional opportunities.

“I kind of fell into journalism by mistake. But I liked it,” he says.

So he headed to Columbia Journalism School, to learn enough to be hired by an actual newsroom.

At Columbia, he saw how journalists can enrich their reporting through data analysis and visualization. He was hooked.

A year after graduating he followed his girlfriend (now wife) Indrani Basu back to her home town: New Delhi. She’s a fellow journalist, and had just gotten a great job helping launch HuffPost India, as news editor.

Stevens landed a newspaper job in Delhi. They let him experiment with “all kinds of weird ideas” about how to do data journalism on the internet.

He started at the Washington Post 6 months ago.

“It’s really cool,” he says. “There are so many smart and talented people here, so there are lots of chances to learn new things and get better at the craft.”

The idea for the COVID-19 story began as he read how diseases spread exponentially. “I had a hard time internalizing what that means,” he says.

A year earlier he’d been experimenting with making circles bounce off each other. He realized now that he could apply that to show how network effects work.

When he got the basic simulation working (with help from data pioneers Bret Victor and Adam Pearce), he realized the story could be “very cool.”

It is.

As well as amazingly educational, and incredibly important.

Part of Harry Stevens’ story shows 4 different outcomes in disease prevention.

9 responses to “Understanding Pandemic Spread: Staples Grad’s Simulation Goes Viral

  1. Jan Carpenter

    It’s a great piece. Flatten the curve, baby, flatten the curve.

  2. Sean Costello

    This is a fantastic article with the best infographics I’ve seen that explain social distancing to non-math geeks. I’ve shared it with friends prior to this, but great to know there is a WSPT connection.

    Thanks for sharing, Dan!

  3. Thanks Dan for highlighting scientific information and thanks to Harry for his expertise.

  4. I always said we use everything we learned in H.S. just didn’t always know it. Basic H.S. science is being applied to coronavirus modelling, add in digital tools and graphics and more recent scientific knowledge and we have this wonderful way to illuminate an abstract concept and make it useful. The basis for this starts in the concept of Brownian movement you learn in H.S.chemistry and/or biology, look it up.-
    Brownian motion is the continuous random movement of small particles suspended in a fluid, which arise from collisions with the fluid molecules. First observed by the British botanist R. Brown (1773-1858) when studying pollen particles. The effect is also visible in particles of smoke suspended in a gas.

  5. I actually had read this online and thought it was a brilliant concept that made understanding the potential spread of the virus easy to understand.

    I had no idea it was done by a Staples grad—another wonderful example of how “06880” repeatedly lives up to its tagline: “Where Westport meets the world.”

  6. Charles Stoebe

    Harry making the great SHS ’04 class proud!

  7. David Fisher

    This animation makes the way the virus spreads much more tangible. Thanks to Harry for his excellent work at WAPO and you, Dan, for highlighting Westport’s contribution to public health science!

  8. As one who posted this article on your blog, Dan, I am astounded at your ability to bring everything back to Westport! From soccer coaching, do you just know the names of every Staples grad going back ## years?