Data Visualisation: A History

Where did infographics come from? Who used them first? What did we do before computers? I decided to take a moment to pause and look back at the history of statistical graphics… 

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Mona Chalabi’s Instagram and Twitter feeds for a while now; her illustrated visualisations are interesting, canny and funny. They feel human, in a way that fancy Tableau graphs and Carto maps sometimes don’t.

In her TED talk earlier this year, Chalabi explained the rationale behind her work; to remind us that data isn’t perfect, and we shouldn’t forget to question it. It’s easy to view graphics as conveying objective truths, but that isn’t always the case.

“I started taking real data sets, and turning them into hand-drawn visualisations, so that people can see how imprecise the data is; so people can see that a human did this, a human found the data and visualised it.”

But her statement got me thinking, and not just about how we’re all more inclined to be sceptical of a number than a graph or chart. It reminded me that we haven’t always had all this incredibly useful technology to make our visualisations for us. What did we do before computers?

I did what any millennial does when we have a burning question: I asked Google. The History student inside me was delighted to discover that graphs and charts have a long, and interesting, past.

William Playfair, 1786

I’m betting that William Playfair isn’t a name you instantly recognise, but the engineer and political economist is widely credited with developing line graphs, bar charts, pie charts. He used statistical graphics in the first instance in The Commercial and Political Atlas, which he published in 1786, to explain the English economy.

As the Enlightenment continued and the Industrial revolution began, scientists, economists, historians and engineers all needed a new language which would allow them to show people their data.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

John Snow, 1853

The medical profession were perhaps some of the first to create lasting change from information graphics. In 1853, John Snow used mapping to identify the cause of infection in the cholera outbreak in London; he plotted the locations of deaths and identified a correlation with the location of water pumps.

Image: Wikipedia

Florence Nightingale, 1857

Then, in 1857, Florence Nightingale used visualisations to argue for better hospital conditions for soldiers. She created rose diagrams showing why her patients in the Crimean War were dying, and successfully used them to pressure Queen Victoria and the British government to improve conditions.

Image: WikiMedia Commons

Charles Joseph Minard, 1869

Not long after, Charles Joseph Minard used data visualisations to explore what had taken place in Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. His visualisation, drawn in 1896, has been heralded as the ‘the best statistical graphic ever drawn’ by statistician Edward Tufte – he showed the dramatic loss of men during Napoleon’s march to Moscow. Napoleon entered Russia with 442,000 men, by the time he reached Moscow he had just 100,000. A sobering thought, reinforced by Minard’s diagram.

Image: Wikipedia

W.E.B Du Bois

And who knew W.E.B Du Bois had such an eye for graphic design? The civil rights lawyer used visualisations at the turn of the 20th Century to represent the plight of African Americas in the US, he took his exhibition, “The Exhibit of American Negroes”, to London and Paris, where an estimated 7 million people saw the hand drawn infographics.

Image: The Public Domain Review
Image: Public Domain Review


Obviously, the popularity of graphs, charts and diagrams has only increased since. Hans Rosling, Edward Tufte, Nate Silver, Mona Chalabi… there’s a very long list of people who have used data visualisations to great effect. And technology is only making this process easier and more accessible.

But we shouldn’t forget that the computers aren’t the key to telling stories; ideas, data and analysis is key. Just as data journalism mustn’t forget the fundamentals of good journalism, data journalists mustn’t forget the fundamentals of good infographics.

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