Information is one of the most powerful and valuable resources in the world, and its importance continues to rise as our highly connected society constantly generates massive amounts of data. Information visualization is one of the methods that can be used to extract the value and power from all of the raw data. Whether you are a politician trying to gain support, a startup company trying to get funded, a researcher wanting to share a discovery, visualizations of the gathered information is crucial in order to send a strong message and gain attention. Charts, diagrams, tables, and other graphs have become such a common part of our society that these tools are often taken for granted. This report is dedicated to the individuals eligible for the credit of inventing these useful tools. Who were they, how did they impact the information visualization field, and when?
This information visualization report presents some of the individuals who, directly or indirectly, laid the foundation for the modern techniques used for visualizing data. Discoveries of information visualization methods can be traced back several thousand years, such as the ancient method of using maps of stars in order to navigate. However, most of the individuals particularly known for contributing to our modern way of visualizing information lived more near term than that, as shown in this visualization.
The objective of this report was to provide a visual presentation of information in a timeline format. The majority of the work was carried out in the free open-source tool Timeline JS, developed by the Northeastern University’s Knight Lab. This tool allows the user to insert data into a Google Sheet, where the data is then fed from Google into the Timeline JS interface via copy and pasting a URL. This generates a customizable, easy-to-read, timeline.
The information presented in this visualization was retrieved from the article Key Figures in the History of Data Visualization, posted on Medium.com by Infogram. In addition to the seven individuals presented in the Infogram article, information from an article by Maria Popova about W.E.B. Du Bois was added.
The information that was extracted from the articles was transformed into data in the Timeline JS Google spreadsheet template. The data was organized in a table with the columns; date-of-birth, date-of-passing, name, and a short informative description, along with photographies related to each individual’s most famous work (see table in picture above). Following the process of gathering and organizing data, the Google sheet URL was inserted into the Timeline JS interface where additional adjustments were made, such as altering of dimensions, colors, and fonts.
Results and Interpretation
Observers of the timeline arrive at the landing page, which is an introduction consisting of the project title and a short description of the content of the visualization. The bottom part of the webpage displays an interactive timeline, which contains the age span of the eight important individuals. When clicking on each name box in the time grid, the observer will be directed to the information page of that particular individual, which holds a short description of that person’s professions and contributions to the field of information visualization. In addition to clicking on the name boxes, observers can navigate their way by clicking the arrows located by the sides of each page.
Studying the timeline, observers will find that the life spans of the individuals are rather consolidated. Edmond Halley is the only individual with a life span ranging from the 17th century to the 18th. Following the mid 18th century, we observe a period of seven individuals, between mid 18th to mid 20th century. This implies that contributions to the information visualization mainly took place between the 18th and 20th century.
Another interpretation to be made from analyzing the visualization is that among the eight individuals, only one is female, which signifies male domination within the field. However, this finding is not very shocking given the historical gender roles in professional and scientific fields.
To further extend this project and widen the scope of its outcome, it would be interesting to perform in-depth research of historical individuals in information visualization, potentially determining at what certain point in time information visualization really took off. Additionally, adding other variables, in order to analyze whether there are correlations between information visualization methods and other macro trends. However, results from a study like this should be carefully interpreted, since such a study would be prone to non-causation correlations.
Based on the male dominance found in the project, it would also be interesting to perform a contemporary study of important individuals within the information visualization field, in order to investigate how the gender proportion would emerge today. My hypothesis for such a study would be that the proportion has swayed in favor of females.
In hindsight, I am satisfied with how this visualization project turned out. The timeline provides a comprehensible overview of some of the important historical figures in the information visualization field. Despite being a rather simple project, it still yielded some interesting takeaways and directions for potential extended studies.
However, one thing that I could have done differently is the way I searched for and organized the information. The initial work process was somewhat scattered, with a lot of jumping back and forth among articles, adding segments of data in different cells of the Google spreadsheet without clear guidelines. In order to improve my workflow, I should follow a pre-determined schedule, hence minimizing the risk of missing out on important information or generating low-quality data.
Summary of links
Information Visualization, Key Historical Individuals in Information Visualization: https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1fkT2WeWY-l_intTSEMjzHbLluaG7T1Ln_jb9I9S1fSs&font=Default&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=800
Timeline JS: http://timeline.knightlab.com
Google Spreadsheet: https://www.google.com/sheets/about/
Du Bois article: https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/10/09/w-e-b-du-bois-diagrams/