The capsizing of a passenger ferry in South Sudan on Jan. 12 is a tragedy enfolded within a tragedy. Two hundred people died trying to escape the recent eruption of violence that is tearing South Sudan apart. Anyone younger than 30 years old on that ferry had experienced no more than eight years of peace during their lives. The BBC and other news outlets explained the bare facts of the sinking, associating it with a sudden displacement of 350,000 people fleeing the fighting or in fear of it.

It is hard to get our mind around the magnitude of numbers that are daily presented to us in the news, especially numbers relating horrific events. Reading about the ferry, I remembered an article in the Washington Post many years ago that overlaid the density of landmines in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia Herzegovina onto a map of the Washington Mall. Readers could sense the danger they would face traversing a familiar landscape. Thinking about 350,000 people fleeing from their homes in South Sudan, I wondered how it could be portrayed in a way that would help me grasp its magnitude using the Virginia geography with which I am familiar.

The population of these seven Virginia counties approximates the number of internally displaced people in South Sudan.

The population of these seven Virginia counties approximates the number of internally displaced people in South Sudan. (map by Mary Parks)

Following the I-81 corridor from the Tennessee border, it takes the population of seven counties to reach that number. The internal displacement of people over the past month in South Sudan is as if every person in the seven counties along 170 miles of I-81 suddenly left.

How else might visual similes make news easier to comprehend? Since 2011, 100,000 people have died due to the war in Syria. If every life lost in Syria were represented by a candle, could you stare at a light source held in your hands without going blind? (No, according to my rough calculation.) If it didn’t blind you, would it be a less effective simile?

I am not an “app” person. My phone’s intelligence is far below average. Nevertheless, I wonder. Would it be handy to be able to present numbers from the news and portray them in a personal and customizable way that takes advantage of landscapes and imagery familiar to each reader? Online news sources continue to provide new ways to interact with their content. What if there were a standard format that news providers could use to link data embedded in their articles to an app that would help you understand in a more personal way the numbers and statistics in the news? I do not develop apps, so all I did was come up with two possible names. First was “In My Backyard” (in contrast to “not in my backyard”). That is not mellifluous like Twitter, Flickr, or Instagram. “Similese” later came to mind.

There is already a great amount of professional graphic and cartographic creativity embedded in our news, much of it incapable of being modeled at familiar scales. For example, recently, the Washington Post featured forty maps that help us better perceive our world. Map number 37 happens to use the “What if it were my backyard?” approach. While you are in the neighborhood, make sure to look at video map number 40. It is mesmerizing.

Coming back to South Sudan, let’s not forget the ability of traditional photography to convey a story effectively. Check this out: “This depressing image sums up why things are so bad in South Sudan,” by Max Fisher. You may note the estimate of displaced persons in his article is 200,000 people.