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.