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Charts that changed the world—way before big data

Thursday, 31 Oct 2013 | 7:00 AM ET
Detail of Ignaz Semmelweis’s germ theory data chart
Source: Tableau Software
Detail of Ignaz Semmelweis’s germ theory data chart

Some years ago I was sent by an employer to a one-day course taught by Yale professor emeritus Edward Tufte on presenting data and information. This was a decade before big data was a buzz term and companies in the business of data visualization, like Tableau Software, were going public to a very enthusiastic investor market.

Data visualization is a growing field in which massive amounts of data are measured in quantities reaching exabytes and crunched by an ever-increasing number of Silicon Valley servers ultimately to be presented in visual displays. How the intersection of data, analytics and business evolves is an open question. But according to Tableau CEO Christian Chabot in a presentation to data geeks earlier this year, some of the world's greatest thinkers gained tremendous insight and changed the world simply by organizing and deciphering basic data sets in new ways.

"When you study the people who make great discoveries, what do they have in common? Not that they use data or know how to program computers. The great minds do something special. The great minds combine, in an artful way, logic with intuition. Great insights are made by people who combine deduction with feel, structure with improvisation, sciences with the arts."

(Read more: 10 strangest data findings you need to know)

And as the Tufte conference revealed, well before big data or even computers existed, data visualization was a tool in use by thinkers that changed history—from the Mayans to Galileo. Consider the discovery of the germ theory, which Ignaz Semmelweis realized through a review of basic medical data—"data that was trying to tell the world ... that there are microscopic creatures totally invisible to the eye that literally make us sick," Chabot said.

There are several revolutions in data science, said Georgia Tech associate professor Rahul Basole. The first is how to generate all the data; the second is how to organize it; and "what people mostly get stuck on is the third: How do we make sense of it, make actionable executable insights?"

As individuals and businesses look for ways to generate insights and analysis from visual information, it's instructive to look to the history of data visualization. Here is a sampling of the charts and data visualization advances that changed history.

Galileo's greatest discovery

At a Tufte lecture, an attendee might witness assistants in white gloves passing around the audience the first edition of a text the professor considers one of the greatest data visualizations in history. It was not made using an online tool from Tableau Software, but quite possibly a wood block. It may seem small in stature, but Galileo's decision to insert images of Saturn directly into text as a way to report his discovery of its shape was a seminal use of "words and images combined to become simply evidence rather than different modes of evidence," Tufte writes in his book "Beautiful Evidence."

Tufte continues, "Placed in the familiar typographic context, these extraordinary images become just another sentence element, with no distinction between text and image. ... Galileo's word/image sentence is one of the best analytical designs ever."

(Read more: 10 surprising ways companies are using your data)

Data in the balance

One thing common across historical examples of data visualization breakthrough is that most come from the world of the sciences. As Eric Rodenback, CEO of Stamen Design, said, it's been less about big business and corporations than science and art, but it's still very germane to the practice of industry. In fact, Scottish engineer William Playfair was one of the first chart pioneers to move beyond rows and columns, as revealed in this graphic representation of international trade. French physiologist E. J. Marey, a pioneer in depicting movement, was funded by the French army and factory owners. Marey used a photographic technique called a chronophotograph to accurately predict the exact mechanism of flight.

"These images weren't illustrations of his research. They were his research, the raw material that he used to draw rigorous conclusions about the world and how it works," according to a Stamen Design presentation. The movement that Marey charted can be moved up to the present by noting that today's ability to chart the movement of global, complex systems is a visualization descendant of the bird's flight that Marey spent his life obsessing over.

"I think a lot about the early days of photography: you had to be a nerd to do it, it was highly technical, and there were lots of debates about what the medium was and what it was for," Rodenback said, adding that Ansel Adams was kicked out of galleries because word got out that he had moved some things around in his famous nature shots. "Data visualization now is in a similar moment."

Napolean's march

Maybe Playfair's work moving away from rows and columns and Marey's movement—into movement—will look familiar when you consider what Edward Tufte refers to as "the best statistical graphic ever drawn" in his book "Beautiful Evidence."

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French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard spent a lifetime working on dams, canals and bridges, but when all was said and done, in the French civil construction Minard may be second only to Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in being famous for charting Napoleon's ill-fated 1812-1813 campaign against Russia. The Minard chart shows six types of information: geography, time, temperature, the course and direction of the army's movement, and the number of troops remaining. The rapidly descending temperatures on the retreat are shown at the bottom of the chart. It took Tolstoy hundreds of pages to describe Napoleon's campaign. It took Minard one chart to show an army that began with more than 400,000 soldiers being reduced to 10,000.

Elementary

Dmitri Mendeleev's work makes a simple but critical point: When it comes to data, it is all in the presentation. "He took this collection of data, and in an involved thinking process looked at it this way, then this way, and then this way, and finally this way. ... There is no difference at all in the data stored in the tables," Chabot said. "The first table is virtually useless and the last table the most important table of data ever created. You can use that table to predict the behavior of elements and predict the existence of new elements."

It's the power of perspective-shifting.

The big bang

There is really no limit to the information a simple data chart can reveal when you consider what Henrietta Leavitt was able to do with basic statistics on 25 stars—a chart "so small and innocent," Chabot said.

The attributes of 25 stars allowed Leavitt to determine the size of the cosmos, the distance to every star in the sky, the size of the galaxy, and where the Earth is located in the grand scheme of existence. And when Leavitt reviewed the chart on that date in 1912, it was the first time in human history that discovery was made.

(Read more: Apps are collecting your intimate data)

"Trying to figure out how far away the stars are was an unanswered question for most of history until Henrietta had an intuition to focus on these 25 stars and organize them in this way and with that. She made one of the most important discoveries in the history of science," Chabot said.

Cracking the code

For hundreds of years, the best researchers were unable to crack the Mayan language. With 800 symbols in the Mayan code, researchers were left to dismiss it as being so superficially complex, it was mere decoration devoid of meaning rather than a writing system.

Eight hundred symbols meant that there were too few for every symbol to be a word but way too many for every symbol to be a sound or letter. The Mayan code was a data table that had been looked at by legions of researchers with no success—until David Stuart, the son of an archaeologist who became one himself, gave the Mayans something no other researcher had: the ability to improvise.

"What if the Mayans were being artistic when they wrote their language? What if they were like jazz musicians and had many different pictures for the same sound and substituted artistically, like playing a C chord in five different ways?" Chabot said.

And that was how the unbreakable Mayan code was deciphered, in a playfulness to the language as important as its structure.

Tufte wrote that the purpose of an evidence presentation is to assist thinking.

Or as Basole said, this is not just about cool infographics. "You need to combine visualization with the analytics component."

"Every day, each organization is faced with a Mayan code," Chabot said. And every day, there are more symbols to deciper.

By Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC.com

(Images of Galileo's text and Minard's Napolean's March chart provided by Edward Tufte's Graphics Press).

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