A Brief History of Data Visualization: from Pre-16th Century to 19th Century

Lab Reports, Timelines, Visualization


Historical stories always intrigues people, however, events themselves can be dry to many of us. Fortunately, visualizing history is becoming more and more popular these years. By making historical events interactive with timeline helps provide an direct understanding of history chronologically. This can help people break history down and in turn raise their interest in the field. Meanwhile, the history of data visualization is pretty relevant to me as a student of the IXD major. Therefore, I choose the history of data visualization as my topic to work on for Lab 1.


The visualization that inspires my design is the timeline is the timeline embedded in the article: Islamic State Timeline Shows How ISIS Expanded In One Year From Two Countries To Ten. The timeline introduces the expansion in five perspectives: affiliated attack, allegiance, execution video, international response, publicity and seize control. The timeline is very clear, however, it contains too much information with more than 40 items and many of them at the same time lead to external media. This makes the timeline hard to follow for people who only want to have a general view of ISIS through a timeline. Hence, I decided to make my timeline general and concise.


The primary tool employed for this lab is TimelineJS, created by the Northwestern University Knight Lab. It is an open-source tool that allows users to build timelines with Google spreadsheet and JSON for customized installations. TimelineJS support media from Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Dailymotion, Google Maps and etc. Users can follow the instructions on TimelineJS to preview and publish their work. Overall, Timeline.JS is very intuitive to use for both beginners and experts.


For Lab 1, I used the exemplar Google spreadsheet provided by TimelineJS that can be copied to my Google drive for personal edit. Each row in the spreadsheet represents one timeslot. The data that can be changed of each row include year, month, day, time, headline, text, and media. The text and most of the images I used came from the paper A Brief History of Data Visualization (Friendly et al., 2008). The source of the paper and the images are linked at the end of the paper. Due to the scope of Lab 1, I only focused on the history of data visualization from Pre-16th to 19th century. The timeline can be viewed here.


After peer review with MJ, which is also based on the same paper, coincidentally, but with a completely different approach, I find MJ’s approach, which is organizing the timeline by key events can be informative as well. I realized that timelines have different user targets as well. People who are sorting focusing on specific events and time can better use MJ’s timeline, while people who are looking for a description of the general century can use mine.

Based on MJ’s suggestions, I learned that adding subtitles to each century that can be easily memorized may be helpful to the views for them to quickly have a general sense about the key advancements of the period. Therefore, for improvements, I can work on the subtitles, and finalize the content with more research. I can also expand the time range to 20th century but still limit the pages to 20.