Navigating Brexit’s choppy waters – with help from big data

LONDON - To investigate whether Britain’s impending departure from the European Union would help or hurt the country’s fishing industry, the Reuters graphics team navigated an ocean of data.

FILE PHOTO: Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave EU and Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A clear narrative emerged: if Britain were to lose easy access to European markets as part of Brexit, the country’s fishing industry would likely face significant challenges despite retaining its ability to regulate fishing by foreign vessels in its territorial waters.

One of the sets of information used for the team’s latest graphic had more than 80,000 rows of data detailing the amount and species of fish brought into British ports by foreign vessels as well as British fishing vessels landing in the U.K. and abroad. We learned that British fish were sent to Nordic, Dutch and Danish ports, bringing consumers mackerel and herring, much more than European neighbours sent to U.K. ports.

(For an 'Interactive graphic on Brexit and the fishing industry' click

The comprehensive and rigorous use of data, the bedrock of any graphics project at Reuters, is critical to reporting on an issue that evokes high emotions in Britain as it prepares to leave the bloc in March 2019.

After weeks of combing through data from the Marine Management Organisation using spreadsheets, Graphics News Editor Michael Ovaska and his team illustrated it in a charting programme called d3.js. They created dozens of graphics to depict flows of fish trading by region and species.

They delved into data obtained from the European Environment Agency and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Data officers at ICES guided them through the organisation’s complex database that tracks the health of fish populations, including anchovies that are being driven into British waters by warming temperatures.

The team then looked for ways to present the data in visually compelling yet easy to understand images and to figure out where the fishing industry was headed using historical data.

To get address these challenges, they focused an interactive graphic on borders, trade and climate change, which could affect the future of the fishing industry. They looked at the maritime borders separating Britain’s waters from neighbouring countries, and they tracked species distribution, including what British and overseas vessels catch and to whom they sell.

All of these elements helped us quantify how climate change was pushing fish stocks north into colder and deeper waters, and they provided a view of Britain’s trading relationships and the effects of trade agreements on the fishing industry.

They also offered insight into potential effects on consumers, showing, for example, that a shift in access to E.U. waters could make it harder to find cod, the main ingredient in fish and chips.