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How We've Been Visualising Big Data Over the Centuries

Data visualisation is by no means a new thing, as evidenced by a new science exhibition at the British Library.

“Big data” might be a modern buzzword, but the concept goes back as long as people have been collecting records (albeit with our perception of what counts as “big” growing over the years). And while interactive data visualisations and infographics might be new to the world of digital media, the art of illustrating data has a long history.

In its first science exhibition, which opened yesterday, the British Library is showing off some iconic scientific diagrams, new and old, from the country’s science collection. It’s a consideration of how scientific and technological advances have shaped the way we visualise information. Johanna Kieniewicz, lead curator of the exhibition, said they particularly wanted to draw links between data past and present: “Data that is centuries old from collections like ours is now being used to inform cutting edge science.”


Called “Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight,” the exhibition focuses on three general areas of research: public health, weather and evolution. Here’s a tour through some of the highlights.

Public Health

From John Graunt's Natural and Political Observations on the Bills of Mortality. Image: British Library

From 1603, London parish clerks started collecting public health data to monitor plague deaths. A citizen called John Graunt, recognised as one of the first demographers, gathered 50 years of the data in his 1662 book Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, which according to the British Library comprised the first known tables of public health data. They also gave the first statistically based estimation of London's population.

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East Florence Nightingale. Image: British Library

The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, is also renowned as a statistician and developed a type of pie chart called the polar area diagram or rose diagram. Dated 1858, this is the seminal diagram she used in the Crimean War to demonstrate that many more soldiers died from preventable diseases (here shown in blue) than on the battlefield (red) or of other causes (black).

Nightingale's rose. Image: David Spiegelhalter, Mike Pearson, Ian Short/British Library

In 2011, statistician David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University updated Nightingale's rose diagram with an animated version you can see here. The British Library writes, "This shows not only the lasting relevance of Nightingale’s diagram as a visual icon, but also demonstrates how data can be pictured in different ways, to different effect."


Map by Eberhard Werner Happel, Die Ebbe und Fluth auff einer Flachen Landt-Karten fürgestelt. Image: British Library

A 1685 map illustrates ocean currents long before satellite images were a thing. It was put together by amalgamating observations by explorers, and is understandably limited in accuracy.

Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio/British Library

Closer to what we're used to seeing these days, this is a still of an animated NASA visualisation called "Perpetual Ocean" you can see in motion here. Based on satellite observations from 2005 to 2007, it shows the movement of the ocean's surface currents.

Weather Sentiment vs. Reality, made with weather data from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. Image: British Library

This chart compares the actual weather in 2011 to over 700,000 social media messages about the weather. It's a pretty striking example of quite how much information you can cram into visualisations today while still offering a clear presentation of the major takeaways.


Great Chain of Being, Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris. Image: British Library

A Greek concept derived from great philosophers including Aristotle and Plato, the "great chain of being" puts everything into a hierarchical order—including God at the top. Usually, stars and moons come before men, who are ranked from kings to noblemen to your average citizen, followed by animals, plants, and minerals. This diagram from 1617 shows goddess of wisdom Sophia at the top.

Ernst Haeckel's diagram of the evolution of man. Image: British Library

Ernst Haeckel's tree from 1879 draws on Charles Darwin's ideas to arrange lifeforms in an order we can relate to our understanding of evolution today—with humans up top near apes, and amoeba at the bottom.

Avian Tree of Life. Image: British Library

A modern take is again a lot more dense in the information it presents: this diagram depicts the "evolutionary relationships of all 9,993 living species of birds, illustrating when individual species diverged." Scientists used DNA sequence data to create the tree, which was first published in a Nature study in 2012.

Overall, the diagrams included in the exhibition show how some of our fundamental scientific theories have developed, but also how our ways of communicating that information have evolved over time—or in some cases, stayed remarkably similar. It makes you wonder how we'll be visualising data in the future, when ever larger quantities of information are available and technology brings new, as-yet-unfathomable means of illustration.

The Beautiful Science exhibition runs until May 26 at the British Library's Folio Gallery.