A set of 19th-century charts detailing some of America’s most populous cities, state ratios of church accommodations and immigration rates was recently uncovered in the Library of Congress and meticulously restored to original condition using new digital techniques. Beyond the unique beauty of these data visualization precursors, however, there’s a lesson about the future of Big Data itself.
As noted by CityLab, the work of Vintage Visualizations on pages from an 1870s statistical atlas is nothing short of astonishing. Vibrant colors and minute details pop out at every turn, a clear indication that whoever produced these charts originally took their work very seriously. The pieces also bear a striking resemblance to modern-day infographics. Data is arranged in a simple, easy-to-understand layout—a quick glance is enough to get a general sense of what the graphic is trying to convey.
What’s interesting here is how little has changed. Big data Analytics has become a buzzword in recent years, along with the notion that infographics are a brand-new, never-before-seen kind of data distillation that empowers companies to make better decisions. In reality, they’re just the latest iteration.
Now You See It…
A recent Huffington Post article describes the unique relationship between magic and data visualization: in effect, they’re two sides of the same coin. Magicians take advantage of visual oversights — for example the eyes’ ability to “fill in” gaps when hands move too quickly or viewers are otherwise distracted — to create their illusions. Data visualizations, meanwhile, take the opposite route, eliminating the need to approximate by providing concrete information in a visual package.
To the Future!
So what do 19th-century infographics and sleight-of-hand card tricks say about the future of Big Data? There are two critical takeaways. First, the fundamental nature of data visualization hasn’t changed. Presenting information in small, visual “bites” remains the best way to encourage broad understanding while communicating critical metrics.
Second, what has changed is the sophistication of data mining and in turn the amount of data available to process and visualize, and this is where magic plays a role. The sheer volume of information stored and processed by the average company makes it impossible to provide full disclosure; choices must be made about what’s important and how it should be communicated. In effect, sleight of hand that conceals what isn’t relevant, rather than what is.
The future of analytics and infographic tools, therefore, will rely on a combination of highly detailed analysis and clever presentation to produce data visualizations that are truthful without becoming needlessly complex. Simply put, there’s nothing wrong with hiding a man behind the curtain so long as he speaks the truth.