10 most influential data visualizations of all times

1. Geography by Ptolemy, AD 150

Claudius Ptolemy a Greek scientist, developed a treatise on cartography, containing detailed, innovative maps of the world based on the knowledge accumulated in the Roman Empire. It was highly influential on later works in cartography and the geographical knowledge in Europe and the Middle East as well as modern cartography. The original “Geography” was lost, but several copies survive, including the one above dated to 13th century from the Vatican library.

2. Quipu, Ancient Andean cultures, 3rd millennium BCE – 17th century 

Ancient Andean cultures, including the Inca, created a brilliant system for representing data and information in the absence of written language, called quipu. They used strings to convey numeric and categorical data by tying knots on the strings and using multiple dimensions – color, length, position on the string, knot type and size and string weave. There were endless uses for the quipu, including: keeping official records, recounting stories, recording census data, data on taxes, livestock, land measurements, armies and for astronomy and calendars. Some of the quipu are still used today, although in a ritual capacity.

3. The color wheel by Issac Newton, 1704

The color wheel feels as familiar to us as letters or numbers and helps us understand the origin of hues and to select harmonious color palettes. We owe this brilliant visualization to Issac Newton who was the first to represent the different hues of color in a shape of a wheel. Using a prism, he observed that white light is composed of many colors. He then was able to regenerate white light by combining red, green and blue and thus called them the primary colors, while by combining the primary colors, he was able to generate the secondary colors – orange, yellow, violet and indigo. He arranged these colors on a wheel, but the sizes of the slices were not equal, but instead represented a Dorian musical scale (left image above). In 1776, Moses Harris created the symmetric, colorful wheel you see on the right based on Newton’s work.

4. Regulated slave trade by James Philips, 1789

In 1787, James Philips, a British abolitionist, printed an infographic showing the inhumane conditions in which enslaved people were transported from Africa to England. The infographic shows people crammed in the lower decks of “Brooks“, a ship operating from Liverpool, in accordance with the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788 that allotted 1.8 m by 0.41 m to each man and even less for women and children. According to these measurements, the ship could carry 454 people. The infographic states (upper right corner) that the ship usually carried a more than that (as many as 600) even after the Trade Act was passed.

This infographic was extremely effective at conveying the horror and inhumanity of slave trade and advancing the abolitionist cause. It became widely known in England and was re-printed in newspapers, pamphlets and books.

5. Causes of mortality in the Crimean war by Florence Nightingale, 1856

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, used statistics and clever data visualizations to drive public policy. During her time as a manager of nurses in the Crimean war, she invented an early version of the circular histogram, which she called a “Coxcomb” to demonstrate that majority of the deaths in the war were not from battle wounds, but from preventible infectious diseases. Using this data she convinced the Queen to improve the sanitary conditions in the army hospitals. Due to her contributions, Florence became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

6. Carte Figurative by M. Minard, 1869

This amazingly innovative precursor of the Sankey diagram shows the dwindling size of Napoleon’s army as it advanced through Russia during the Russian campaign of 1812-1813. Minard captured 5 different variables in his map – direction, distance, size, location and temperature. The beige (used to be red) line shows the army on the way to Moscow and the black shows the army retreating. The thickness of the lines corresponds to the size of the army and the shape to its location. The graph below the beige and black lines shows the temperature as the army was retreating. You can trace how an army of 400K French soldiers is reduced to 4K under the strain of plummeting winter temperatures. In his famous book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”  Edward Tufte calls it “the best statistical graphic ever drawn”.

7. Institutionalized Racism infographics by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1900

W. E. B. Du Bois, a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University and a group of his students have developed a series of striking visualizations of data on Black Americans in the US. Their visualizations exposed institutionalized racism and the challenges faced by Black communities. Their work was exhibited at the Paris World Fair in 1890. Not only the content was illuminating, the innovative design of these infographics made them even more compelling.

The chart above uses the length of the lines as well as captions to show that an overwhelming majority of Black Americans lives in the country and villages rather than cities. The “country and villages” line is cleverly presented as a spiral which allows to gauge its size but at the same time fit it on the page. The red color draws attention to the main point of the graph.

8. The pioneer plaque by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, 1972

These plaques are a message from us to any sentient beings traversing space. They were placed on board the 1972 Pioneer 10 and 1973 Pioneer 11 space probes that were targeting Jupiter and then existed the Solar system, and are still floating in space, continuing their journey.

The plaques contain three separate pieces of information:

  • Hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen – to create common units of measurement for space and time, the scientists showed the hyperfine transition of hydrogen, the most common element in the universe in the top left of the plaque. This transition has the period of 0.7 ns in which light can travel 21 cm. The tiny ‘1’ in the middle of the hydrogen diagram, indicates the symbol used to represent this time and space quantities.
  • Figures of a man and a woman – the man’s hand is raised as a sign of peace, but also to show opposable thumbs and the fact that the limbs are capable of moving. The woman’s height is shown using the notation of hyperfine transition of hydrogen to the right of the woman.
  • Earth’s location – shows as lines radiating from one spot (Earth), each lines representing a distance a pulsar with the markings on the line showing the pulsar frequency. The solar system is also shown below the pulsar map.

9. COVID-19 cases map – Johns Hopkins University, 2020

This famous visualization was watched religiously by the whole world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (and continuous to be watched). This interactive map provides the most up to date and the most complete information, aggregating case numbers from hundreds of sources. Moreover, the creators provided access to their raw data, allowing data nerds like me (see my posts on COVID) and respectable institutions alike to create their own visualizations.

10. The US 2020 election results board, Google, 2020

Besides the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 maps, this was probably the second most watched data visualization of 2020. This format was adopted by many outlets, but here I’m showing the Google version, because they made it very convenient to find most of the important results by just searching for “elections”. The visualization provided multiple pieces of information including number of electoral votes, percentage votes counted, how many voted for each candidates and who won in each state.

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