Data visualization has been around for hundreds of years—thousands if you include maps. Learn some important historical milestones and about the evolution of data visualization over the millennia.
(electronic music) - Data visualization has been around for at least 10,000 years. You heard that right. Researchers are making a compelling case that some cave paintings may in fact be astronomical maps depicting constellations coinciding with significant events, like comets striking the planet. Think about that for a second. Your latest PowerPoint deck full of line and bar charts has a legitimate link to a cave person drawing on a wall using ground-up charcoal and animal fat.
In other words, humans have been using visuals to communicate data to each other for a very, very long time. As Michael Friendly summarized it, in the earliest days, data visualization was restricted mostly to early maps and diagrams. Then came a period focused on measurement and theory, then the mass invention of new graphic forms in the 18th and 19th century, followed by what he calls the Modern Dark Ages when visualization was shrinking and receding, followed by the second peak representing our current era of interactive and dynamic visualization, a renaissance in the field.
It's that time period in the 18th and 19th centuries that so many focus on, for good reason. This was when William Playfair invented and began to popularize the line, pie, and bar charts. It's when figures like Florence Nightingale invented an entirely new visualization form which had a lasting impact on society. Similarly, and around the same time, John Snow was also using visualizations, a map in his case, which also contributed immensely to the fields of epidemiology and public health. Or a bit later, you had W.E.B. Du Bois, famous as a sociologist and civil rights activist, who led a team of university students in the creation of two large expositions, including many innovative and unique visualizations showcasing the plight of African Americans after the Reconstruction.
Those are three of the most famous historical visualizations from that time period. But none is better known than Charles Minard's map of Napoleon's Russian campaign, made famous by Edward Tufte. That visualization may actually be the best-known visualization on Earth right now. Now, I'm not here to walk you through each historical example. I just want you to think about them more abstractly. Go back and Google 'em on your own, and you'll learn a lot about 'em. By the way, I gave a short talk at Tapestry Conference about the Minard, so check that out if you're interested.
Why are graphics like these so compelling and interesting? I think there are a few reasons, but the first is they help us remember that we're standing on the shoulders of giants. These were people who faced a data communications challenge and found innovative and entirely new ways to solve those challenges, and in some cases invented successful solutions that have been replicated endlessly ever since because they established a norm worth repeating. Someone did it first, and then it stuck. And seeing that first example can help us think about innovation, creative thinking, as well as editing an iteration, evolving a first attempt of a good idea over time to a norm or even a best practice that everyone can use.
For instance, I created this project for FM Global Insurance. It's a display of their Resilience Index, a ranking of countries based on their resilience to various risks. The overall score is made up of three categories depicted in this Coxcomb plot, which I can thank Florence Nightingale for inventing. Would I have come up with this idea on my own without having seen a Coxcomb plot before? Maybe, but the more I'm exposed to other great work, even if I don't replicate those ideas, my work is certainly derivative of someone's smart thinking, even if I'm not consciously aware of it.
So study data visualization history for some understanding about how to innovate some ideas about best practices and what works and doesn't work and definitely for inspiration for your next visualization. Next, we'll talk to Sandra Rendgen who literally wrote the book on Charles Minard. She wrote a book covering his entire amazing collection of data visualizations from the 19th century. We'll talk about Minard and the perspectives of historical visualizations and what we can learn from them today.