Ainslie Johnstone

The Economist

Ainslie has used data to provide insights into the biggest stories of the last year. Her work has spanned topics ranging from the energy crisis, to the environment and natural disasters, to war. She relies on a host of different data types and statistical techniques, with a particular focus on analysing satellite images.

One of Ainslie’s most ambitious projects of the last year set out to predict how deadly Vladimir Putin’s energy weapon might be. After Mr Putin turned off the gas taps between Russia and Europe, the price of gas and electricity surged. High energy prices are not only bad for people's wallets but also their health. As prices rise, the most vulnerable skimp on home heating, raising their risk for lung and heart problems. In November 2022, with winter approaching, Ainslie modelled the effect of high energy prices on winter deaths using historical data. She predicted that high fuel prices could result in tens of thousands of excess deaths in Europe over the winter. In a subsequent analysis in May 2023 she found that her prediction had been borne out—even though the winter was mild, high energy prices probably led to the deaths of 70,000 Europeans. Ainslie has also written a plethora of rapidly produced data stories in response to breaking news. Her piece about smoke produced by Canadian wildfires, which enveloped the eastern United States at the beginning of the summer, calculated that June 6th had been the worst day for American lungs since records began. The story, which involved gathering, combining and analysing data from five different sources, was published just a day later, on June 7th. Similarly, just a week after the deadly earthquake in Turkey, she estimated that buildings in poorer neighbourhoods were 3.5 times more likely to be destroyed in the earthquake than buildings in rich ones. This project involved analysis of spatial data, scraping Turkish real-estate websites for house-price figures and statistical analysis. Ainslie also finds innovative ways to cover conflicts using satellite data. As the war broke out between Israel and Gaza she set up an automatic analysis pipeline to detect damage to buildings in Gaza. The pipeline takes data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite, which flies over Gaza three times every 12 days. It outputs a map of damage, the probability that each individual building in Gaza has been damaged and, by estimating the population of each building, the population that may have lost their homes. Maps and charts plotting these insights are updated on an interactive tracker page as soon as new data becomes available, were published by Ainslie in a print story on 19th October and are used in other journalists’ coverage of the war.