Timelinejs: (some) women in information visualization

Lab Reports, Timelines, Visualization


In materials that cover the history of information visualizations, most of the individuals lauded for their contributions to the field are men. If they did mention any women, it was usually only Florence Nightingale. I became curious, what other women made contributions to information visualization? While hugely influential, Nightingale couldn’t be the only woman in history to create, refine, or make breakthroughs in the field. Who else was doing this work, and when were they doing it?


I used TimelineJS, an open source tool from Northwestern University’s Knight Lab that is used in conjunction with Google Sheets,  to create my visualization. TimelineJS allows the user to publish rich interactive timelines, with images, links and other types of media. 


Before I could visualize the work of these women, I needed to know who they were and what they did. Stephanie Evergreen’s article “Beyond Nightingale: Being a Woman in Data Visualization” the perfect jumping off point. She identified a number of women that are overlooked when we only talk about Nightingale: Emma Willard, Florence Kelley, Annie Maunder, Marie Neurath, and Mary Eleanor Spear. From there I was able to research these women more, learn more about their visualizations, as well as identify a few more women to highlight: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Marie Tharp.

Once I had compiled my research, I was able to plug it into the appropriate cells of the Google Sheet template.

A screen shot of a Google Sheet
My Google Sheet used to generate the timeline.

Since one of the goals of this visualization was to become more aware of pioneering women in the field, I thought it was important to both visualize the women themselves, and their work. So for each woman I included a photo or portrait of them, with an example of one of their visualizations has the background image. In their bios I included a link for more information about them, so that users could research and understand them further. Additionally I mapped their lifespans, rather than dates of particular achievements, in order to get a more holistic understanding of when they were working, and any overlaps between them all. 

Then I completed my timeline by first publishing my Google Sheet so it is public and then linking it back to TimelineJS to generate my timeline.

Screenshot from the TimelineJS website.


The results of this work is the timeline of (Some) Women in Information Visualization.

first slide of timeline

One aspect that stood out to me once the data was mapped on the timeline was the fact that Florence Nightingale wasn’t even the earliest (or second earliest – she is third on the timeline) woman on the list. Emma Willard and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were both born, as I assume working, before her. I assume then the reason Nightingale is cited more thoroughly is because she created a new type of graph, as well as the huge impact of the work she did. Where Peabody and Willard used their visualization in schools, Nightingale’s work saved countless lives. If you want to speak to the power of visualizations, Nightingale’s story is a more vivid example. 

Florence Nightingale slide
Florence Nightingale was the third entry on the timeline.

The other thing that became apparent, that while all of these women’s lives overlapped with at least three of the other ones listed, none of them appeared to be contemporaries, let alone collaborators with one another. They were all working independently from one another, which given their historical contexts is perhaps not too surprising. It was probably hard enough for these women to work in traditionally male dominated fields, working in teams with other women may have been near impossible. 


There are a few things I would do differently if this were to be expanded. First I would want to find and include more women, especially some more modern women, as well as some women of color. Once there is a more extensive and more inclusive list I think there would be even more questions we could ask of the data. Perhaps once there were enough samples I could even use TimelineJS’s “group” feature to organize them by field or type of visualization. 

Additionally while I thought it was important to be able to visualize the women AND their work, some of the background images make it difficult to read the biographical information. I would like to find a way to fix this legibility issue while still retaining the ability to show their work.