Data visualisation throughout the ages

The growth of ‘big data’ is leading to increasing challenges for designers, who are asked to present complex, massive information stories in simple and engaging graphics.

Perpetual Ocean (c) NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011
Perpetual Ocean (c) NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, 2011. This striking animation by NASA visualises the flow of ocean surface currents from June 2005 to December 2007.

But as a new exhibition at the British Library shows, the field of data visualisation is far from new.

The Beautiful Science show presents examples of visualisation from the 17th century to the present day.

Early exhibits include Robert Fludd’s Great Chain of Being – a 1617 representation of the order of the universe, and Florence Nightingale’s famous Rose Diagram, showing causes of mortality among soldiers in the Crimean War.

Things are brought up to date with images such as Perpetual Ocean – which uses Nasa data to illustrate the flow of ocean currents, and Martin Krzywinski’s Circles of Life, which illustrates the genetic similarities between humans and other animals including chickens and dogs, and was specially commissioned for the show.

The British Library says the exhibition will illustrate how data visualisation has changed throughout the ages, due to advancements in science and technology.

Dr Johanna Kieniewicz, lead curator of the Beautiful Science exhibition, says, ‘As big data is becoming a topic of such huge interest, we particularly wanted to show the important connections between the past and the present.

‘Data that is centuries old from collections like ours is now being used to inform cutting-edge science.’

Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris ... Oppenheim; Frankfurt, 1617
Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris … Oppenheim; Frankfurt, 1617. The ‘Great Chain of Being’ is an ancient Greek concept that classifies life on earth into a hierarchical order with respect to the rest of the universe. In this diagram, the oldest exhibit in the exhibition, the chain starts with Sophia, goddess of wisdom, and extends downwards to animals, plants and minerals.

Bills of Mortality, John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality. London, 1662.
Bills of Mortality, John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality. London, 1662. From 1603, London parish clerks began to collect health-related population data in order to monitor plague deaths, publishing the London Bills of Mortality on a weekly basis. John Graunt amalgamated 50 years of information from the bills in Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality (1662), producing the first known tables of public health data.

Early Ocean Currents, Eberhard Werner Happel, Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fu¨rgestelt. Ulm, 1685
Early Ocean Currents, Eberhard Werner Happel, Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fu¨rgestelt. Ulm, 1685. This unusual map of 1685 illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time based on the observations of explorers and mariners. Though necessarily conjectural in many ways, it highlights the remarkable effort made by early cartographers to make sense of an accumulation of data from such reports without the visualisation tools we have today.

Temperature and Mortality of London. William Farr, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1848-1849. London, 1852.
Temperature and Mortality of London. William Farr, Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1848-1849. London, 1852. In these diagrams, epidemiologist and statistician William Farr plotted cycles of temperature and cholera deaths for 1840-50. He notes that the circular form and colours make ‘the diagram represent the facts in a striking manner to the eye’. At the time, Farr believed that cholera, now known to be caused by water-borne bacteria, was spread by miasma or ‘bad air,’ sourced from evaporation of the Thames. Although this hypothesis was incorrect, Farr left an important legacy. He set up the first national system for collecting statistics, advocated a data-driven approach to public health, and utilised innovative graphic methods to communicate that data.

On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, John Snow. London, 1855
On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, John Snow. London, 1855

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East Florence Nightingale. Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858.
Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East Florence Nightingale. Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858. In her seminal ‘rose diagram’, Florence Nightingale demonstrated that far more soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than from wounds inflicted on the battlefield (red) or other causes (black) during the Crimean War (1853-56).

Air Currents over the British Isles Robert, FitzRoy, The Weather Book: A manual of practical meteorology. London, 1863.
Air Currents over the British Isles Robert, FitzRoy, The Weather Book: A manual of practical meteorology. London, 1863. Robert FitzRoy, best known as the captain of HMS Beagle aboard which Charles Darwin sailed as a naturalist, is also widely considered to be the grandfather of the modern weather service. This illustration shows how storms and cyclones develop on the border between warm tropical and cold polar air masses and looks remarkably like a modern satellite image.

The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879.
The Pedigree of Man. Ernst Haeckel, The evolution of man. London, 1879. Ernst Haeckel was inspired by the ideas of Charles Darwin and sought to devise trees organising all life on Earth.

Nightingale’s Rose (c) David Spiegelhalter, Mike Pearson, Ian Short 2011
Nightingale’s Rose (c) David Spiegelhalter, Mike Pearson, Ian Short 2011. Cambridge University statistician David Spiegelhalter and his colleagues have taken the data from Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagram’ and animated the ‘rose’, as well as picturing the data as a bar chart and icon diagram. This shows not only the lasting relevance of Nightingale’s diagram as a visual icon, but also demonstrates how data can be pictured in different ways, to different effect.

Weather Sentiment vs. Reality (c) Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) weather data.
Weather Sentiment vs. Reality (c) Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) weather data. This chart compares the actual weather to over 700,000 sentiment-analysed social media messages about the weather throughout 2011.

One Zoom Tree (c) James Rosindell, Imperial College London 2012 http://www.onezoom.org
One Zoom Tree (c) James Rosindell, Imperial College London 2012 http://www.onezoom.org. This interactive allows viewers to explore the evolutionary relationships between tens of thousands of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians (Tetrapods). It uses a branch of mathematics known as fractal geometry to create an attractive visualisation that can be explored by zooming in, to get ever more detail. The data includes audio from the British Library’s wildlife sound collections.

Avian Tree of Life (c) Gavin Thomas, Walter Jetz, Jeff Joy, Arne Mooers, Klass Hartmann, 2012. First published in Nature.
Avian Tree of Life (c) Gavin Thomas, Walter Jetz, Jeff Joy, Arne Mooers, Klass Hartmann, 2012. First published in Nature. This diagram depicts evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, illustrating when individual species diverged. Although modern birds first evolved some 145 – 66 million years ago, this diagram shows that they began to diversify exceptionally rapidly about 50 million years ago. This is particularly apparent for the songbirds, waterfowl, gulls and woodpeckers.

Epidemic Planet (c) GLEAMviz Team (www.gleamviz.org/team), 2013
Epidemic Planet (c) GLEAMviz Team (www.gleamviz.org/team), 2013. Epidemic Planet is based upon the Global Epidemic and Mobility model, which researchers used to accurately forecast the 2009 pandemic influenza outbreak.

Circles of Life (c) Martin Krzywinski, Circles of Life, 2014
Circles of Life (c) Martin Krzywinski, Circles of Life, 2014. Specially commissioned for Beautiful Science, these striking ‘Circos’ diagrams picture the genetic similarities between humans and five other animals: chimpanzee, dog, opossum, platypus and chicken.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight, is at the Folio Society Gallery at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1, from 20 February-26 May.

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