Inspiration for the following article came from Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert's book W. E. B. Du Bois's Data Portraits, published by Princeton Architectural Press and available in Australia via the fine folk at Books at Manic.
Levi Walter Yaggy used bright, unrealistic colours to make sense of the world. This chart, from 1893, was used to teach geography to school students.
Consider the map: a series of markings that convey information about the physical world.
The earliest known work of cartography – a mammoth tusk engraved with what appear to be the mountains, rivers and valleys surrounding the Czech town of Pavlov – dates back more than 25,000 years. It's a primitive thing, almost incomprehensible to the modern eye. Yet it marks a cognitive revolution for our species. By carving into this tusk (or some earlier version just like it), our ancestors were able to codify information about the world for the very first time. We may have been living in caves, but the infographic age had already begun.
According to Michael Friendly, a researcher in statistical graphics at Ontario’s York University, our species’ relationship to visual information can be split into two phases. “For most of human history, information was purely about solving practical problems relating to the world outside,” he explains. “Navigation, finding sources of food and establishing trading relationships” –these were the things we turned our minds and chisels to. We made maps, painted hieroglyphics and carved tax receipts into stone. But while the stockpiles of information grew, what they told us about the world remained only skin deep. Despite the appearance of ledgers and maps and diagrams, we remained largely incapable of asking why things occurred, or how we could use this information to our benefit. “Information about the flood levels of the Nile have been recorded for 7,000 years," Friendly says, by way of example. “But no-one ever took that and put it to practical use.”
Friendly identifies the early 1700s as the point when things finally changed. “This was when we realised we could not only record information, but we could use it for some interesting and important purposes. That was the beginning of data.” Driven by the newly minted science of statistics – itself a byproduct of the then-surging Enlightenment – countries throughout Europe began collecting unprecedented amounts of data about their citizens, landscapes, weather, military and anything else deemed helpful to the effective running of the nation-state.
A map, designed by Charles Joseph Minard, detailing the impact of the Confederacy's 'cotton diplomacy' embargos during the American Civil War.
For the first hundred years or so, statistics operated solely as a tool of resource management: this many soldiers required that much grain; this many plague victims required that many new immigrants. But then, in the 1820s, a lawyer and amateur statistician from France by the name of André-Michel Guerry made a startling discovery: you could use these same units of information to draw conclusions about what he called “moral variables” – behavioural trends within a population, such as literacy, employment and crime. “ Guerry took these numbers and made shaded maps out of them, showing how they were distributed around France,” Friendly explains. “Nobody had ever done that before. It was the first time people believed we could understand how humans worked.”
Friendly, who is 74 and runs the website DataVis.ca, talks wistfully about these early days, when the creators of infographics had to be artists as much as statisticians. At the time, there was no commonly accepted language for the visualisation of data – no off-the-shelf charts, graphs or X-Y axes – so the early pioneers were forced to invent it all from the ground up. “It was painstaking work,” says Friendly, “but the results were incredible. Even the best statistical graphics software today is a pale imitation of what people like André-Michel Guerry, Charles Joseph Minard or Charles Dupin did by hand – and they did it with such magnificent thinking, and with such attention to graphic detail.”
It was Florence Nightingale who really unleashed what Friendly describes as the "Golden Age" of infographics. “Nightingale deserves enormous credit for her use of graphics for public persuasion,” he says. "She knew that it was all well and good to have data, but if you couldn't tell a story with it then it was useless." During the Crimean War, Nightingale collected reams of data showing the perilous relationship between hospital cleanliness and soldier mortality. Invited to present her findings to Britain’s parliament, she invented a new type of chart called a ‘Coxcomb’, which presented the mortality rates as differently sized circle segments. Thanks to Nightingale’s visual flair, the conclusions were inescapable. “As a result of this one chart, she was able to convince Parliament to change the entire practice of how soldiers would be cared for.”
Florence Nightingale affected major healthcare reform with this chart.
The second half of the 19th century was a time of great innovation and creativity in the field of data visualisation. As advances in science began unlocking the universe’s mysteries, data scientists were on hand to transform these findings into a multi-variegated array of mosaics, flow maps, pie charts, planetary diagrams, proportional circles and bi-polar scales. (Friendly particularly recommends Émile Cheysson's Album de Statistique Graphique, an 18 volume survey of the French nation that he describes as an "exquisite sampler of all known graphic forms").
The Golden Age might have reached its apex with the work of the American sociologist and black activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Exhibiting at the Paris World Fair in 1900, Du Bois created a series of 63 brightly coloured lithographic plates that offered the most comprehensive survey yet seen of the “American Negro” in the post-slavery era. Clean, striking and effective, the charts represented a quantum leap forward for academic expression and the idea that information could – and should – be of interest to the masses.
W.E.B. Du Bois' idiosyncratic diagrams weren't always easy to parse, but they nevertheless brought the lives of African Americans into sharp relief.
But the advent of statistical theory in the early 20th century blunted the infographic advance. “The enthusiasm for graphics switched to enthusiasm for mathematical precision,” Friendly says. While not necessarily a bad thing – in the pursuit of knowledge, accuracy is invaluable – to Friendly, it felt like a return to the early days of statistical obscurism. “All these beautiful graphs were being replaced with big tables,” he sighs. On a technical level, these tables may have been more useful than Du Bois’ striking (though admittedly difficult to parse) charts. But, robbed of any creative expression or artistic flair, they led to a broader disengagement from the concept of data. It would take the advent of the computer for us to rediscover our love of data visualisation. Computers took the mathematical specificity demanded by statistical theory and offered new ways of expressing it.
These days, infographics are an almost inescapable part of digital life: more publications now employ fulltime data journalists (an occupation that didn’t even exist until The Guardian launched its Datablog in 2009), who routinely use graphs and flowcharts to explain everything from gender politics to corporate structures to the inevitable heat death of the universe. Yet Friendly remains ambivalent about this data-saturated moment. “There are so many new developments and techniques in information graphics,” he says, from interactive graphs to word clouds. “But so much of what we see has just been reinvented by people with no knowledge of the early history. Others are just graphical fluff: pretty pictures, perhaps, but how well do they help you solve a problem?”
Tableau De L'Histoire Universelle, 1958, is nothing if not ambitious in scope and creative in its execution.
It's this lack of discernible purpose that jars Friendly the most. Good infographics should speak to phenomena, not numbers, he says. They have a single focus and speak their message with clarity. And they offer us something aesthetically pleasing and expressive. “Every time I see a bunch of numbers with cute icons beside them, I grit my teeth. How's that helping us to understand something in a new light?”
Still, Friendly does see some hope in the emerging field of data journalism, where people are once again thinking carefully about how to present some of our most pressing issues in powerful, often interactive forms. "Visual communication and visual thinking is a really important part of communication," he says. Words and numbers are important, “but pictures have a far greater impact. If you can find the right graphical form to express what it is you want to say, then you can make a real difference."
An early data visualisation showing household income in Chicago.