For all of their recent bad press, combat drones have been a boon for our military. These eyes in the sky are a miraculous counterpoint to geographically dispersed terrorist networks, offering our soldiers remarkable reconnaissance and lethal striking while keeping the good guys out of harm’s way.
But they’re not always so precise.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind, by Pitch Interactive’s Wesley Grubbs, is a data visualization of the 3,105 (known) people who’ve died in the 366 (known) drone strikes since 2004. Remarkably, you see every bit of data we have collected from on-the-ground, first-person reports, provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Each strike is given its own arching line that leaves a deep crater of casualties. As for its aesthetic inspiration? That’s Missile Command. It’s a purposeful perversion of an otherwise joyful 8-bit trope.
"We wanted to use something familiar that fits within the concept of a missile strike. However, we wanted to make sure it was still very serious in tone which is why we choose the colors and set up the timing with how the animation plays out," Grubbs tells Co.Design. "Once the animation is complete, you have a visualization that illustrates just how serious drone strikes are. We also use a downward-oriented bar graph to show the victims ‘buried’ with each attack."
One time through the animation reveals something that you may have known but never seen—since 2008, the U.S. has deployed drones in a deluge over Pakistan. At first glance, I attributed the rise in drone use to President Obama’s first term. While that’s partially true—after one look at this graphic, you’ll see that our commander in chief is clearly pro-drone—the initial spike of drone activity began before Obama was sworn in (which was technically 2009).
"I had a conversation with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about it, and they said blaming it all on Obama is a common mistake," Grubbs explains. "When Musharraf resigned, the next president in Pakistan had little clout in Washington so he couldn’t stop the CIA from doing what they were going to do. When Obama took office, though, he definitely turned up the juice."
It’s hard to argue that Out of Sight, Out of Mind, doesn’t take a stance on the matter. Several dramatic motifs position the data to punch you in the gut with guilt. But ultimately, what we see is a very complete presentation of what our best journalists have gathered on this topic. If we feel guilty or responsible, well, that’s mostly because the data says we should.
"There are civilians and children dying. And even the military combatants are not always military," Grubbs writes. "Are their deaths worth the cost of all the other lives we take, not to mention the effect this has on the general population living in fear? The ultimate goal is for people to see this visualization and ask themselves this question."