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Posts Tagged ‘data visualization

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected”*…

Friedrich Strass, Der Strom der Zeiten, 1803 [source/zoomable version]

Readers may recall an earlier post on John B. Sparks’ Histomap, a well-known 1931 attempt to visualize the 4,000 year history of global power. Public Domain Review takes a look at Histomap‘s ancestor/inspiration, Friedrich Strass’ Der Strom der Zeiten (published in 1803), and its influence…

In his foundational textbook Elements, the Alexandrian mathematician Euclid defined a line as “breadthless length” — a thing with only one dimension. That’s what lines can do to history when used to plot events: they condense its breadth into pure motion, featuring only those people and places that serve as forces thrusting it forwards along an infinite axis. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Strass proposed a different way to visualize time’s flow. A Prussian historian and schoolteacher, he published his chronological chart in 1803, a massive diagram titled Der Strom der Zeiten oder bildliche Darstellung der Weltgeschichte von den altesten Zeiten bis zum Ende des achtzehnden Jahrhunderts (The stream of the times or an illustrated presentation of world history from the most ancient times until the eighteenth century). The linear timelines that Strass resisted, like those inspired by Joseph Priestley, “implied a uniformity in the processes of history that was simply misleading”, write Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg. Strass’ stream, by contrast, allowed historical events to “ebb and flow, fork and twist, run and roll and thunder.” It would spawn several imitations as the century drew on…

Capturing history in its organic unfolding: “The Stream of Time,” from @PublicDomainRev. See the original at the David Rumsey Map Collection.

* Reif Larsen


As we contemplate chronology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1800 that the Library of Congress was established. James Madison has first proposed a national library in 1783. But it wasn’t until 1800, when (on this date) President John Adams signed signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington, that the deed was done. The Act appropriated $5,000 “for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress … and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them.” Books were ordered from London, creating a collection consisting of 740 books and three maps, which were housed in the new United States Capitol.

But in 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces burned the Capitol Building, and with it, the the collection (by then, around 3,000 volumes). The Library as we know it was created from those ashes. Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library– 6,487 books– as a replacement, Congress accepted, and the Library of Congress grew from there.

The Capitol Building, which housed the Library of Congress, after being burned by the British [source: Library of Congress]

“Human history seems to me to be one long story of people sweeping down—or up, I suppose—replacing other people in the process”*…

Max Roser argues that, if we keep each other safe – and protect ourselves from the risks that nature and we ourselves pose – we are only at the beginning of human history…

… The development of powerful technology gives us the chance to survive for much longer than a typical mammalian species.

Our planet might remain habitable for roughly a billion years. If we survive as long as the Earth stays habitable, and based on the scenario above, this would be a future in which 125 quadrillion children will be born. A quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000.

A billion years is a thousand times longer than the million years depicted in this chart. Even very slow moving changes will entirely transform our planet over such a long stretch of time: a billion years is a timespan in which the world will go through several supercontinent cycles – the world’s continents will collide and drift apart repeatedly; new mountain ranges will form and then erode, the oceans we are familiar with will disappear and new ones open up…

… the future is big. If we keep each other safe the huge majority of humans who will ever live will live in the future.

And this requires us to be more careful and considerate than we currently are. Just as we look back to the heroes who achieved what we enjoy today, those who come after us will remember what we did for them. We will be the ancestors of a very large number of people. Let’s make sure we are good ancestors…

If we manage to avoid a large catastrophe, we are living at the early beginnings of human history: “The Future is Vast,” from @MaxCRoser @OurWorldInData.

* Alexander McCall Smith


As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1915 that Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” was put in quarantine on North Brother Island, in New York City, where she was isolated until she died in 1938.  She was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever… before which, she first inadvertently, then knowingly spread typhoid for years while working as a cook in the New York area.

Mallon had previously been identified as a carrier (in 1905) and quarantined for three years, after which she was set free on the condition she changed her occupation and embraced good hygiene habits. But after working a lower paying job as a laundress, Mary changed her last name to Brown and returned to cooking… and over the next five years the infectious cycle returned, until she was identified and put back into quarantine.


“Torture the data, and it will confess to anything”*…

Source: @piechartpirate

Add movement to a bar chart, and you’ve got yourself an audience-pleaser. These so-called “bar chart races” are not popular with data visualization experts– but what do experts know?…

I’m not a betting man. But I do enjoy a good bar chart race — a popular way to visually display and compare changing data over time. Bars lengthen and shorten as time ticks away; contenders accordingly hop over each other to switch places in the ranking. Will your favorite keep their lead? Look at that surprise challenger rush to the front! Meanwhile, furious battles are waged for the middle and even the lower spots on the list.

Bar chart races are a spectacular way to animate certain types of information, but the so-called dataviz community is skeptical. Many data visualization specialists complain that bar chart races are like a sugar rush: a lot of entertainment, but very little analysis. Big on grabbing attention, small on conveying causality. Instead of good seats at the data ballet, you get standing room only at the information dog track.

Well, all that may be true. But when is the last time you’ve been glued to a statistic about global coffee production? Bar chart races are fun to watch, not least because you can pick a favorite early on and get to see them win — or lose. In other words, you’re emotionally invested in the animation in a way that’s lacking from static stats.

Bar chart races are used for just about any dataset that can be quantified over time: best-selling game consoles, most trusted brands, highest grossing movies…

Any dataset that can be quantified over time can be turned into a contest that is both exciting and (a little bit) enlightening: from @VeryStrangeMaps, 10 examples of “Bar chart races: short on analysis, but fun to watch,” for example…

Ronald Coase


As we ruminate on representation, we might check our watches: it was on this date in 1918 that the Standard Time Act (AKA, the Calder Act) became effective. Passed by Congress earlier in the year, it implemented across the U.S. both Standard time (the creation of time zones anchored in UTC, the successor to GMT) and Daylight Saving Time.

U.S. Time Zones (somewhat revised from the original division)


“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”*…

The majority of countries are democracies, but how many people enjoy what we think of as democratic rights? A nifty interactive map from Our World In Data charts the changes in political regimes across the globe, country by country, over the last 200 years. By way of explaining its categories:

• In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.

• In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.

• In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

• In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

As Visual Capitalist observes…

Do civilians get a representative say in how the government is run where you live?

While it might seem like living with a basic level of democratic rights is the status quo, this is only true for 93 countries or territories today—the majority of the world does not enjoy these rights.

It also might surprise you that much of the progress towards democracy came as late as the mid-20th century

An interactive look at the state of democracy around the world, and how it has evolved. From @OurWorldInData, via @VisualCap.

* H. L. Mencken


As we ruminate on representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933, the day after an arsonist ignited the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament in Berlin (and four weeks after Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of German), that Adolf Hitler attributed the fire to a conspiracy of Communist agitators.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch “council communist”, was the apparent culprit; but Hitler insisted on a wider network of villains. He used it as a pretext to claim that Communists were plotting against the German government, and induced President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending civil liberties, and to pursue a “ruthless confrontation” with the Communists. A court later found that van der Lubbe had in fact acted alone. But Hitler’s orchestrated reaction to the Reichstag Fire began the effective rule of the Nazi Party and the establishment of Nazi Germany.


“Visualization gives you answers to questions you didn’t know you had”*…

Reckoning before writing: Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

Physical representations of data have existed for thousands of years. The List of Physical Visualizations (and the accompanying Gallery) collect illustrative examples, e.g…

5500 BC – Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

The earliest data visualizations were likely physical: built by arranging stones or pebbles, and later, clay tokens. According to an eminent archaeologist (Schmandt-Besserat, 1999):

“Whereas words consist of immaterial sounds, the tokens were concrete, solid, tangible artifacts, which could be handled, arranged and rearranged at will. For instance, the tokens could be ordered in special columns according to types of merchandise, entries and expenditures; donors or recipients. The token system thus encouraged manipulating data by abstracting all possible variables. (Harth 1983. 19) […] No doubt patterning, the presentation of data in a particular configuration, was developed to highlight special items (Luria 1976. 20).”

Clay tokens suggest that physical objects were used to externalize information, support visual thinking and enhance cognition way before paper and writing were invented…

There are 370 entries (so far). Browse them at List of Physical Visualizations (@dataphys)

Ben Schneiderman


As we celebrate the concrete, we might carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Rolf Landauer; he was born on this date in 1927. A physicist, he made a number important contributions in a range of areas: the thermodynamics of information processing, condensed matter physics, and the conductivity of disordered media.

He is probably best remembered for “Landauer’s Principle,” which described the energy used during a computer’s operation. Whenever the machine is resetting for another computation, bits are flushed from the computer’s memory, and in that electronic operation, a certain amount of energy is lost (a simple logical consequence of the second law of thermodynamics). Thus, when information is erased, there is an inevitable “thermodynamic cost of forgetting,” which governs the development of more energy-efficient computers. The maximum entropy of a bounded physical system is finite– so while most engineers dealt with practical limitations of compacting ever more circuitry onto tiny chips, Landauer considered the theoretical limit: if technology improved indefinitely, how soon will it run into the insuperable barriers set by nature?

A so-called logically reversible computation, in which no information is erased, may in principle be carried out without releasing any heat. This has led to considerable interest in the study of reversible computing. Indeed, without reversible computing, increases in the number of computations per joule of energy dissipated must eventually come to a halt. If Koomey‘s law continues to hold, the limit implied by Landauer’s principle would be reached around the year 2050.


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