Shaping Data, Shaping History

Data visualization is an act of interpretation. Giving shape to data requires decision-making about what to include, and how to display it. Whether a map, a chart, an infographic, or an interactive experience, there is intention behind every data visualization. Often the intention is to help the audience -- or the creators -- make meaning out of data. Sometimes the intention is to make a specific argument or encourage viewers to understand the data in a particular way. Regardless of the intent, the meanings people find in data affect their knowledge and actions. In this way, the shape of data itself shapes history.

How Maps Reveal, and Conceal, History

What one scholar learned from writing an American history consisting of 100 maps.
Propaganda. Guillaume de L'Isle's 1718 map, "Carte de Louisiane et du Course du Mississippi" may have been geospatially precise, but it's orientation and labeling made claims of French sovereignty and imperial domination.

A Wretched Situation Made Plain on Paper

How an engraving of a slave ship helped the abolition movement.
Activism. Statistics alone often lack the emotional impact of seeing the scale of numbers of people and tightness of space in the 1788 abolitionist engraving of a slave ship, "Plan of an African Ship’s Lower Deck with Negroes in the Proportion of Only One to a Ton."

“A Very Curious Religious Game”: Spiritual Maps and Material Culture in Early America

The Quaker spiritual journey, often invisible due to its silent, humble and individual nature, is illustrated in this map.
Self-improvement. In an era when Friends frowned upon popular mapping games that taught children geography, a 1794 allegorical  “Map of the Various Paths of Life” visualized ethics and morality as choose-your-own-adventure travel.

Mapping a Demon Malady: Cholera Maps and Affect in 1832

Cholera maps chart the movement of the disease, and the terror that accompanied it.
Warning. The blood-red lines on the first global disease maps, printed in 1832 medical treatises, caused alarm among readers. The maps were intended to inform the public and help stop the spread of the disease, but those who thought a fear of cholera predisposed people to contract it worried that viewing the maps itself posed a risk to their health.

Emma Willard's Maps of Time

The pioneering work of Emma Willard, a leading feminist educator whose innovative maps of time laid the groundwork for the charts and graphics of today.
Branding. To differentiate her textbooks from those of her competitors in a crowded market of school materials, Emma Willard made her 1835 timeline “Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire” a colorful tangle of woven streams.
African American sharecropping children in a field with bags of cotton.

The Perils of Big Data: How Crunching Numbers Can Lead to Moral Blunders

As history shows, efficiency without ethics can be catastrophic.
Erasure. What a data visualization leaves out or obscures is as important as what it shows. Plantation ledgers, following the advice of Thomas Affleck's 1847 "Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book" presented grids of numbers that look "like antiquarian versions of Excel spreadsheets." These charts made productivity visible but made the brutality of slavery harder to see.
Graph depicting deaths from cholera in New York City in 1849

Infographics in the Time of Cholera

To inform its readers of a cholera epidemic, The New York Tribune published an ancestor to our current infographics.
Journalism. A graph of the cholera death toll, with data just a week old, was so unusual in the popular press in 1849 that its authors had to include directions on how to understand line graphs.
Antoni Jażwiński’s Tableau Muet, based on the original “Polish System” for charting historical information, later revised in France and the United States, 1834

Visualizing History: The Polish System

For the Polish educator Antoni Jażwiński, history was best represented by an abstract grid.
Memory. In 1850, educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody revised a system for "spatializing the births and deaths of people, nations, and technologies," and popularized it as a tool for memorizing historical information.

These Maps Reveal How Slavery Expanded Across the United States

As the hunger for more farmland stretched west, so too did the demand for enslaved labor.
Governance. In his policymaking and wartime decision-making, Lincoln frequently consulted an 1861 map of slavery's expansion constructed from census data. This is an early example of "thematic mapping," a technique that makes visible the traits or properties of different regions.

Zones of Doubt

What we can learn about trade policy from a misbegotten 19th century effort to quantify the chemical properties of wool.
Problem-solving. Customs appraiser Haydn M. Baker chemically tested imported wool to determine its value. In 1886, he tried to "derive, geometrically, the 'theoretic separation' between the categories 'washed,' 'unwashed,' and 'scoured.'" The complicated chart he produced demonstrates the difficulty of visualizing uncertainty.
Map of U.S. in pastels, with Benjamin Harrison and the words "Protection to American Labor" at the center.

These 'Persuasive Maps' Aren't Concerned With the Facts

A digital collection shows how subjective maps can be used to manipulate, rather than present the world as it really is.
Persuasion. Some maps are less about conveying geographical information and more about making an argument. An 1888 map, for instance, used color and text to trumpet the trade policies of presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison over those of his opponent, Grover Cleveland.

How Women Mapped the Upheaval of 19th Century America

The second part in a series exploring little-seen contributions to cartography.
Reform. College-educated women ran Hull House, providing services to alleviate poverty and aid immigrants' assimilation into American life. Led by Agnes Sinclair Holbrook, they conducted social science surveys of Chicago's 19th ward. In 1895, they mapped this data to support improvements in sanitation and living conditions for the ethnic enclaves they served.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900)

The visualizations condense an enormous amount of data into a set of aesthetically daring and easily digestible visualisations.
Debunking. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois created a visually arresting exhibit for an international audience, using data to create a "graphical narrative" of African American successes, from land and property ownership to literacy, entrepreneurship, and patents.
The United States of America, or as it’s also known: New York’s “back yard”.

Satirical Cartography: A Century of American Humor in Twisted Maps

Satire and an inflated sense of self-importance collide in a series of maps that goes back more than 100 years in American history.
Satire. "Perception-based cartography" uses people's knowledge of accurate geographical data to show distortions that make arguments about people's preferences and blindspots. For instance, a 1908 “Map of the United States as seen by the Finance Committee of the United States Senate,” calls out politicians for focusing their spending on eastern cities at the expense of the rest of the nation.
Redlining map for Decatur, Illinois

Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America

In the 1930s, the federal government created redlining maps for almost every major U.S. city. Explore those maps and their contexts in a brand new version of this project.
Control. In the late 1930s, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation drew lines on maps and attached data to categories and colors in a way that obscured racial discrimination in housing policy and made such policies seem unbiased but in reality perpetuated structural inequality.

The Strange Ratio of Treasure Island

The perfect correspondence of landscape and information can be seen in Ruth Taylor’s 1939 map.
Creation. Usually, a visualization represents information that exists in a different form. But in the case of a man-made island built for the 1939 Golden Gage International Exposition, the physical landscape was designed to be its own map: the information and the visualization were one and the same.
Geological map of winding river paths creating an intricate swirling pattern

Harold Fisk’s Meander Maps of the Mississippi River

A geologist and cartographer dreamed up a captivating, colorful, visually succinct way of representing the river's fluctuations through space and time.
Science. Working for the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944, Harold Fiske found a beautiful solution to the scientific challenge of how to clearly depict 200 years of change over time and space on a single map.
Scientists attend to banks of monitors at NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston in 1965.

Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard

Futuristic control rooms with endless screens of blinking data are proliferating in cities across the globe. Welcome to the age of Dashboard Governance.
Contextualization. When multiple visualizations of different types of data appear together, users -- from airplane pilots reading gauges to city officials looking at statistics and demography -- get a complex picture from which to make operational decisions. The word "dashboard" has a long history, from its 1846 original definition as a mud guard at the front of a sleigh to its 1990 meaning as a "screen giving a graphical summary of various types of information."
Graph of the data from the genome study, in which every data point is represented by a line which connects to other lines to show family trees

Largest Human Family Tree Identifies Nearly 27 Million Ancestors

Researchers create massive genealogical network dating back 100,000 years
Genealogy. People have been visualizing ancestry in the form of a tree for hundreds of years, but only through the combination of big data and human genome science did the creation of the world's largest family tree allow scientists to hypothesize about global migration patterns.
COVID-19 dashboard

Covid-19 Dashboards Are Vital, Yet Flawed, Sources of Public Information

Unlike our car dashboards, covid-19 dashboards do not give individuals actionable information.
Transparency. By 2021, many people expected to get the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 through data visualizations. The graphical displays were often frustratingly inadequate for guiding individual health decision-making, but nonetheless important for keeping citizens informed about the pandemic on the national and global scale.