Published 04 December 2017 Category: Business Insight, Compass Leisure

Data Visualisation – A Brief History

When our prehistoric ancestors daubed crude maps on cave walls to show the rest of the group where the best hunting ground was, they were harnessing the same concepts and principles as we utilise today when demonstrating worth to clients, or when presenting end of year reports. It is only the methods and the levels of refinement which have changed.

Of course, when we think of modern data visualisation we are approaching the subject with a little more complexity than those early pioneers. Modern data visualisation is about more than just presentation. It is about defining and identifying insight and connecting data with those who need it most, and in the ideal configuration. It is about telling stories.

There is evidence to suggest that data visualisation in a refined form existed as early as the second century CE. It was probably in use even before this, but it was not until the Enlightenment period and the 17th century that the sophistication of data presentation really began to grow.

French-born polymath Rene Descartes was a celebrated author, philosopher, mathematician, physicist and astronomer, so it will be of little surprise that he was a mean data visualiser as well. His work with data visuals would be an important foundation stone for the work of Scottish mathematician, William Playfair, around a century later.

The New Era Of Data Visualisation
When William Playfair (1759 – 1823) was alive, data was changing. In fact, everything was changing – the United States broke free from British rule, in France - the ruling royal family were usurped in a bloody coup, and across the world, entrepreneurs were making a killing in burgeoning industries. As you might imagine, in this tumultuous world, data was becoming increasingly important.

Events in Washington and Paris ushered in a new form of governance; one in which ultimate power was not locked behind the gates by an elite few and in which accountability was key. Private factories and industrial regions were clanking into life across Europe and the United States. The captains of industry at their helm also found accountability – to investors, shareholders and customers – to be the order of the day.

It is here that we see the beginnings of moves towards modern data forms and concepts, the first glimpses of governments and industrial practices that seem familiar to us even to this day. There was much work to be done of course – and a lot of progress to be made in refining and developing data collection and presentation methods – but the building blocks were already well and truly in place.

Check out this 1931 Histomap that’s 5 feet long and stands today as a fascinating example of one man's goal to record thousands of years of history.

The Twentieth Century
By the time we reach the 20th century, data has already grown in importance but the democratsation process is far from over. At this point, data and visuals were still in the hands of the elite statisticians – worlds away from the masses. So, how did we make the leap? How did we get where we are today – ready and willing to deliver top quality data and insight directly to people from all walks of life?

The work of the French mapmaker, Jacques Bertin, certainly helped to push data visualisation forward. The award-winning cartographer was one of the first to recognise how the striking visual power of a map could be harnessed within the presentation of data.

Leading statistician, John Tukey, pushed the envelope even further in 1977 when he developed the approach of exploratory data analysis. While working as a professor at Princeton, Tukey began to work on ways to make sense of large amounts of data, and to gain better insight from these data masses. In doing so, he advanced the science of visualisation.

Moving into the 1980s, 1983 saw the publication of the early data visualiser’s bible, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. Tufte, along with Tukey and statistician, William Cleveland, were the figures who really began to refine what we think of as data visualisation today.

Later on, the work of Stuart Card, Jock Mackinlay and Ben Shneiderman helped to hone this process further, giving us the techniques that we rely on today. Thanks to these visionaries, and those that went before them, we now have the power to gain and demonstrate insight in new and increasingly exciting ways.

The infographics, interactive applications, timelines, data maps and node diagrams that we create today represent the pinnacle of centuries of work. We are at the cutting edge of an exciting and ever evolving system of communication. It is up to us to build upon the work of those who went before us, moving it forward into an exciting tomorrow!