data visualization

Perhaps our oldest expressive urge, the rendering and fixing of data – from deer killed to taxes paid to air traffic patterns – often reveal basic narrative elements and sometimes even tell eloquent stories. Accuracy, legibility and occasionally authenticity can be bound up in the most abstract visualizations of this, our longest documentary practice.

Lascaux Cave Paintings

Richly colored figures that document a hunt constitute some of the oldest works of art on record.

Discovered in 1940, these paintings on the walls inside a network of caves in the south of France constitute some of the oldest works of art on record. Their creators, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who lived in the region some 17,000 years ago, used mineral pigments such as chalk, ochre, and iron oxide to paint vivid, richly colored figures of game and livestock, such as horses, bison, and deer. The purpose of these paintings remains mysterious, with competing explanatory theories.  One interpretation is that the paintings document a hunt, visualizing the array of animals encountered.


Tally Sticks

Notches in a divided stick guaranteed the authenticity of accounting data.

A method of recording debts by making notches on sticks or bones, tally sticks have been used for thousands of years by cultures all over the world. Britain used tally sticks in official record-keeping from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries; even today, though technology has long since marched on, the word for “contract” in written Chinese is the symbol “large tally stick.”

Generally, the record would be made by cutting a set of notches, representing a certain amount of money, across the width of a stick. Then the stick would be split lengthwise, with the debtor taking one half (the tally) and the debtee taking the other (the foil). The notches in the matching halves would guarantee the authenticity of each side’s data. Initially developed around 6,000 B.C.E., tally sticks were in use until the 19th century.


Polynesian Woven maps

Navigational maps made from plant fibres conveyed information about islands, winds, water swells, and tides.

The indigenous peoples living in the Marshall Islands used detailed navigational maps, which showed not only the positions of islands, but often winds, water swells, and tides, to facilitate travel among the islands by canoe. Navigators created these maps by using plant fibres to tie palm fronds together, and attaching shells or coral to indicate islands. Even within local communities, the techniques for making and interpreting woven maps were carefully guarded. A sailor would have to know the mapmaker’s visual shorthand in order to be able to consult the map.


Minard’s Map

A flow map shows how visualization can tell a story.

Edward Tufte has said of this flow map, which portrays the number of troops remaining in Napoleon’s army at every stage of his attempted invasion of Russia in 1812 , that it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” The data on which the chart is based–about military casualties, the location and movement of troops, and changing temperatures–had always been available, but the chart combined these factors in a way that showed a clear progression.  It is the visualization of the data, as the chart maps casualties along spatial and temporal coordinates, that turns the abstracted information into a story.


E.J. Marey’s Cinematography

Nineteenth-century photographer E.J. Marey developed techniques to capture subjects too swift to see in full detail with the naked eye.

The nineteenth-century scientist Étienne-Jules Marey was a pioneer in the use of photographic technology to capture forms in motion. A specialist in the circulation of blood and the movement of joints and muscles, Marey developed techniques to capture leaping men, writhing eels, flying birds, and other subjects too swift to see in full detail with the naked eye, using photography to visualize data that cannot normally be seen. His images laid bare for his contemporaries a world previously hidden in the folds between moments.



The Processing platform aims to help people learn simple computer programming.

Created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas at the MIT’s Media Lab, the programming language Processing aims to help people learn simple computer programming and develop visual images and effects on their computers. Artists and information designers have used Processing to create such diverse graphics as interactive maps of the nation’s ZIP codes, pulsing shapes that visualize the beat and melody of songs, graphical representations of dynamics in texts, social behaviors, and Facebook pages, computer games that demonstrate the action of systems in the human body, and even autonomous artworks. An open-source language, Processing continues to evolve to meet its users’ needs.


Flight Patterns

Flight Patterns from Aaron Koblin on Vimeo.

Flight Patterns maps flight paths over the United States during a 24 hours period.

An ongoing information visualization project by the digital artist Aaron Koblin, Flight Patterns uses data from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to produce animated graphics showing the paths of all flights over the United States during the past 24 hours. The resulting map reveals the migration routes of friendship, kinship, business, and commerce that we travel along every day, usually invisible high above. The animated flights appear as glowing blue trails, but despite their cybernetic feel, they show, in part, our animal habits: the map fades to dark as the nation falls asleep, then ripples for red-eye flights from the west coast, then brightens from east to west as the country awakens.

“I think it’s one thing to say that there’s 140,000 planes being monitored by the federal government at any one time, and it’s another thing to see that system as it ebbs and flows,” said Koblin in a 2011 talk on his work. “Our lives are being driven by data, and the presentation of that data is an opportunity to make some amazing interfaces that tell great stories.”


A simple trick accounts for much of our success as a species: pattern recognition.

Confronted with complex interactions and wide-ranging inputs, we manage to sort through the clutter, emerging with dots that we can connect and actions we can take. Pattern recognition requires abstraction, distinguishing data from noise. But coherence has many forms, and only through demonstration does it stand as actionable argument.

Data visualization offers that demonstration. Over the centuries, it has served as the haiku of pattern recognition. Any particular visualization privileges specific parameters of experience, with data representing quantity, motion, duration, location, and so on. But the art – and success — of visualization turns on more than simply isolating data: the graphic rendering of that data carries the argument. As Edward Tufte and others have eloquently shown, the right data in the wrong form say little of importance. And as we can see through the long haul of history, getting it right has little to do with technology. The best arguments, it seems, are data-based stories of pattern recognition, whether inscribed on cave walls and strips of wood, or in digital animations and dynamic renderings.

Feltron Annual Report

The Feltron Annual Report uses charts, graphics, and statistics to present the story of one man’s life by the numbers.

Every December since 2005, the graphic designer Nicholas Felton has published an annual report that uses charts, graphics, and statistics to present the story of his life by the numbers. The reports tend to focus on the routine and mundane: the forms and paperwork that churn around his activities, the people he meets each day, the journeys he takes by bus, taxi, ski-lift, and foot. But the picture that emerges is anything but ordinary. The reports convey not only the pleasures of data, but the astonishing shapes that ordinary life takes at the microscopic level.



The nonprofit Gapminder Foundation uses information graphics to provide a global public with information about global income and wealth distribution.

Founded in 2005 by a group of Swedish infomaniacs, the Gapminder Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide a global public with information about global income and wealth distribution. Its instrument of revolution is information graphics, including videos, charts, and interactive animations, which the foundation’s website updates regularly to keep up with global trends. The same website provides visitors with virtual tutorials on how to transform packages of global data, using components such as income, life expectancy, under five mortality, and CO2 emissions per capita, into interactive graphics of their own. Gapminder also gives attention to providing instructors in the classroom with the tools they need to teach students how to work graphically with statistics.

The foundation’s goal, in its own words, is to promote the “understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels… by converting boring numbers into enjoyable, animated and interactive graphics.”


We Feel Fine

Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from weblogs.

Every few minutes, the system searches the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling”. When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the “feeling” expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.

The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000 – 20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions like: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? Do women feel fat more often than men? Does rainy weather affect how we feel? What are the most representative feelings of female New Yorkers in their 20s? What do people feel right now in Baghdad? What were people feeling on Valentine’s Day? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? And so on.

The interface to this data is a self-organizing particle system, where each particle represents a single feeling posted by a single individual. The particles’ properties – color, size, shape, opacity – indicate the nature of the feeling inside, and any particle can be clicked to reveal the full sentence or photograph it contains. The particles careen wildly around the screen until asked to self-organize along any number of axes, expressing various pictures of human emotion. We Feel Fine paints these pictures in six formal movements titled: Madness, Murmurs, Montage, Mobs, Metrics, and Mounds.

At its core, We Feel Fine is an artwork authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what’s on our blogs, what’s in our hearts, what’s in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life.


I Love Alaska

A film of 13 episodes centers on a single user’s online queries.

The opening title cards of I Love Alaska read: “On August 4, 2006, AOL accidentally published a text file on its website containing three months’ worth of search keywords submitted by over 650,000 users…. This movie presents the true and heartbreaking search history of user # 711391.”

Using three months of a single user’s online queries as a “found text,” Lernert Engelberts and Sander Plug made the 13-episode film, I Love Alaska. The film consists of long shots of Alaska landscapes, over which a female voice reads the search queries. The search history reveals a distinctive identity: the user is a married woman from Houston, Texas, subject to bodily ailments and private woes, who is having an affair and dreams of a new life in Alaska. Although she spends enough time online to worry about addiction, she is sufficiently unfamiliar with search engine protocols to produce a particularly readable search history, asking direct questions and typing in whole sentences. The result is not only a funny, sometimes poignant story about a very particular individual, but a mirror reflecting back to its viewers their own lonely queries into the void.


Britain from Above

A landmark cross-platform BBC series shows modern day Great Britain from the sky.

An epic journey reveals the secrets, patterns and hidden rhythms of our lives from a striking new perspective. The series examines how each and every person in Britain is interconnecting, making Britain what it is today. It includes stunning data visualisations, aerial photography and satellite imagery.

Britain looks very different from the skies. From a bird’s eye view of the nation, its workings, cities, landscapes and peoples are revealed and re-discovered in new and extraordinary ways. Cutting edge technology allows you to see through cloud cover, navigate the landscape and witness familiar sights as never seen before.

This landmark series of documentaries was filmed in High Definition and aired on BBC One, Two and Four for three weeks starting August 10, 2008. The website allows you to watch all the films from the programmes, exclusive material including Rewinds through time at 16 different locations, Rough Cuts of magic moments and Behind the Scenes.


The Sexperience 1000

A social website wants to end the taboo on talking about sex, using video messages, discussion forums and infographics.

Great Britain has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe. In the past decade, sexually transmitted diseases doubled among people over 45 years old, but talking about sex is still a taboo. With the television programs The Sex Education Show and Joy of Teen Sex, Channel 4 launched a national campaign to help us talk more openly and honestly about our sex lives. The conversation is continued on the social website Sexperience, where professionals answer questions and sexually active users exchange experiences, on discussion forums and through video messages.

The website’s motto is “Sex is not simple. There aren’t always easy answers.” But there are complex questions, it seems. For instance:

What exactly is the right time for your first time? How important is the orgasm for a woman? How do you tell your boyfriend he should invest more energy in foreplay?

Those who are looking for concrete statistics find them in the Sexperience 1000: attractively designed infographics about the sexual experiences and preferences of the British populace. The differences between men and women are especially noticeable: he prefers her to be on top, while she prefers missionary. He masturbates more often. But they cheat just about as frequently as one another.

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