Charts that changed the world—way before big data
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.
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"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).