History of Data Visualization – Technological Advances of Women and Unknown Creators

Lab Reports, Timelines

In a dataset of 50 technology-related inventions, 42 were attributed to men. This timeline highlights the underrepresented women, as well as unknown creators, in the history of data visualization.

The experiment parameters were to curate a timeline of 5-10 events around a theme in the history of visualization. As a trained gender analyst and advocate, the first questions I consistently ask myself in my work are: what did women contribute, and how can I find the answer? Iterations of those questions persist throughout the experiment.

Methods & Processes

The first step in the process of creating this visualization was to decide what data I wanted to use: what theme about the history of visualization was I going to pursue? After reading each entry on the two websites suggested: History of Infographics and Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics, and Data Visualization, I was struck by the low number of women and minorities featured. Having determined that I was not able to focus on minorities alone (W.E.B. Dubois was the only African American included, for example) I decided to highlight the sparse involvement, or publicly attributed involvement, of women in the Milestones dataset. Additionally, I further narrowed my focus to the 50-item technology category.

Left with only four entries attributed to women, which did not satisfy the experiment’s 5-10 event criteria, I included the four unknown sources, totaling eight.

Rationale: women very well could have been the inventor of a technological innovation, yet acknowledging that it was a woman would likely have been controversial, or even impossible, depending on the time period. Doing a full research cycle on each technological advance included in my timeline is beyond the scope of this experiment, therefore determining the actual likelihood that a woman was behind an invention is a question left to historical examination. The ultimate goal is to highlight the fact that of the 50 items in this technology dataset, 8% were created by women and 8% by “unknowns.”

Given the minimal representation, it was important for me to put a face to a name, by including pictures of the women in the timeline, in addition to an example of the technologies they were involved with inventing, where aesthetically appropriate. The default CSS formatting did not lend itself well to representing both the two women and two programs contained in the final data point; thus, additional pictures are hyperlinked in the text.

The visualizations that informed my designs are the example timeline by Knight Lab, as well as the work of former INFO 658 students using the same tool. Immediate observations were on the use of color, largely that a black and white palette was too minimalist for my personal aesthetic, as was observed in student work. The tutorial’s example timeline showed what certain media looked like on the backend and frontend, providing inspiration and prompting questions about possible information representations.

Materials, Tools & Software

The primary tool used to create this timeline was a tutorial on Timeline.js by Knight Lab. This tutorial necessitated the use of a Google Sheets template; data in each cell populates a corresponding timeline field. Google Docs was used to write the report and draft text. Pratt-administered WordPress hosts this public report. Canvas is the learning management system utilized by this course. Internet applications were run using the browser Chrome in a Windows 10 environment on a Surface Book Pro PC. Browser style checks of the timeline were conducted on Firefox and Windows Edge. Peer review was conducted with a partner via Zoom desktop application.

When choosing colors, I started with my personal favorite for web design, #09814A, and used the website coolors.co to support generating complementary HEX codes, in order to create a gender neutral, cohesive palette with accessibility-friendly contrast. 

The primary dataset used for this lab was Friendly, M. & Denis, D. J. (2001). Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization. Web document, http://www.datavis.ca/milestones/. Accessed: January 28-31, 2021. After narrowing my selection, the resulting dataset includes eight entries.

Given the limited data included on this website, I conducted supplemental research online in order to obtain further information and do preliminary fact-checking. This enabled me to include enough context about the technology so that a public, uninformed audience would grasp the basic premise.


Future directions pertaining to content would be geared towards researching the less famous “milestones” but no less impactful technology advances by women, gender non-conforming individuals, people with disabilities, and ethnic and racial minorities, including from the non-Western world. This would enable me to expand my dataset and ultimately create my own, more complex, collated dataset. Creating an inclusive, intersectional timeline of technological advances, that is publicly available and accurate, helps shift away from the dominant narrative written by white, mostly Western, men, towards a more inclusive, and therefore informative, accurate one. It is this authors’ opinion that many small steps forward is the preferred path for broader shifts.

Regarding style and design, there are many future paths to pursue. For example, I found the tutorial on timeline.js limited. Simple directions are easy for even the minimally proficient technology user to follow. While there is merit in such tools, the weight of potential was heavier than efficacy during this experiment. That being said, one of the template cells included a <a href=”hyperlink”> example </a>, leading me to believe I could include basic HTML and CSS in the template cells, which proved accurate, and allowed greater visual creativity than initially observed. Of note, Knight Lab provides a guide on how to override the default CSS, which is well within my technical capacity to pursue during future iterations of this experiment.