From Healthcare to Historiography: How Data Visualisation Changed the World

When was the last time you had to conduct thorough research on something? Did all of that research involve reading reams upon reams of scholarly articles? Did you have to remember numbers, dates, times, trends, or anything else? Or did you simply check out an infographic for all those specifics? Maybe a pie chart or other such graphs?

As hard as it is to believe, there was once a time when data visualisation wasn’t a thing. Charts and graphs are such a widely used and efficient representation of data that are essential to an understanding of many topics, that we can barely conceive of a life where they were not only not used, but actively vilified and derided. Aside from that, it seems some academic circles consider pie charts a sin.
Data Visualisation
So how has data visualisation evolved through the years? And why are some forms of data visualisation so contested?

The History of Data Visualisation

Data visualisation has been around since before the 17th century, mainly existing as maps and geological data. Who was where, what kingdoms belonged to whom, family trees, that kind of stuff. However, the practice really took off in the 18th century, when William Playfair - a Scottish political economist - set about inventing several of our most widely used methods of data visualisation, i.e. the pie, bar, and line graphs.

Today, data visualisation is everywhere. If you’re doing research on just about any topic, you’re more than likely to come face-to-face with a chart or graph of some kind. Today, infographics are an immensely popular method of delivering a lot of research data to an uninitiated audience quickly, and in an eye-catching and easily readable way.

However, some academics believe that the world’s reliance on pie charts is a curse to accurate data communication, and although they have some valid points, several researchers and pie chart advocates have pointed out inherent flaws in the logic of these critics. The basic consensus is that when making a show of proportionate data to illustrate a point or comparison, pie charts are fine. If you want pinpoint accuracy, then line or bar charts are the way to go.

If you still doubt the importance and significance of data visualisation, then read on to find out about several charts and graphs that literally changed the course of history!

Florence Nightingale’s Coxcomb

That’s right, we’re opening with a pie chart. Eat it, Tufte.

Well, to be fair this is a very different kind of pie chart that addresses many of the issues that Tufte actually has with the standard pie chart. Also called a “rose diagram” due to the breed of rose of the same name, this pie chart uses every individual slice of the pie as a time period, with the segments of each coded according to the data visualised therein. The result is an uneven pie chart that demonstrates, at a glance, relevant data and statistics.

Famed army nurse Florence Nightingale used this famous chart to illustrate to Queen Victoria how unsanitary conditions in the army hospitals and care facilities during the Crimean War were causing more deaths than the actual battle itself. This chart revolutionised health care, both in and outside of war.
Florence Nightingale

Eugenics and The Kallikak Family Tree

Eugenics is the practice of manipulating the gene pool in order to breed a “desirable” generation of people, slowly breeding out “undesirable” traits. In 1912, eugenicist Henry H. Goddard published The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness. The family tree posited in the book portrayed the descendants of “Martin Kallikak Sr.” According to the visualisation, Martin had a lawful wife with whom he fathered several children. However, Martin apparently also had a tryst with a “nameless feeble-minded girl.” This resulted in a separate Kallikak lineage with several instances of so-called “feeble-mindedness”, or as we know it today, intellectual disability.

Goddard’s study received widespread attention, and acclaim, and was used in justifications for eugenics movements around the world. It was taught as part of the curriculum in schools and even used to justify the most horrific single instance of eugenics in history, the Holocaust. However, despite its inherently flawed scientific basis, the most astounding fact is that the Kallikak family never existed! Martin Kallikak never strayed from his marriage with a “feeble-minded” woman, and his resulting “bad” lineage truly had nothing to do with him. They were an entirely different family called the Wolvertons. Aside from this, the biases and misinformation surrounding intellectual disability at the time were ill-conceived, and thus any expertise on the issue is now known as false. The entire study was based on false people, and false lineages, and yet was directly responsible for the human rights violations of millions of people.

The Warming Stripes

Global warming is a massive issue, and in 2018, climate scientist Ed Hawkins was given the task of delivering data on how much the planet had warmed, to a largely not-in-the-know audience. The chart he developed has come to be known as “The Warming Stripes.”

These stripes of colour contain no text and no key or axis. Rather, it is merely a collection of cool to warm coloured stripes that show the heating of our planet over the years, with each stripe dedicated to a single year. It is a message that is quickly absorbed in the context of its representation and is a staggering but beautiful visual.

The Infographic History of the World

If you’ve got some spare cash and a lingering sense of curiosity, it may be worth picking up a copy of this fascinating book. Released in 2019, The Infographic History of the World by Valentina D’Efilippo condenses the world’s 13.8 billion years of history into 100 expansive infographics, taking histrionics and data visualisation design to new extremes.

A Final Word

Data visualisation is incredibly important. Not only does it encourage artistic and creative methods of dealing with cold facts and hard data, but it also encourages learning and education. The visual representation of various forms of data is integral in communicating that data effectively to the audience that needs it most. Being informed is the first step to solving any problem, and with data visualisation techniques, being informed is easier than ever.