Data visualisation is a young and buzzing field, or so it seems. Many
related projects are focused on mastering new technologies, on navigating
the unprecedented wealth of data and on supporting the
human-machine-interaction of the future. Interestingly, in most
professional debates and talks today, we can detect a near total lack of
historical perspective or awareness. While everyone is looking forward,
there doesn’t seem to be much use in looking back.
In late October, a broad international research community dedicated to
visualising information and data gathered in Berlin. In a great concurrence
of events (termed “Vis Week” by some people), the grand annual IEEE vis
conference was accompanied by the smaller interdisciplinary conference Information+ in Potsdam.
Basis aller heutigen Künstlichen Intelligenz sind bekanntlich
Algorithmen. Diese sind in den letzten Jahren in zunehmendem Ausmaß in den
Fokus der öffentlichen Wahrnehmung gerückt. Dabei schwankt der Grad an
thematischer Souveränität und Güte der einzelnen Wortmeldungen aus
Presse, Politik und Gesellschaft teils erheblich.
Oh boy, we live in exciting times. Not many generations in history do
get the chance to witness a technological revolution as profound as the
current one. While it can be challenging to constantly adapt to new devices
and services, there’s also the thrill to observe just how the new
technologies change the ways we go about things.
In the world of data visualisation there are only few works which are as
universally celebrated as this 19th century statistical map about
Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812. During this desastrous military
endeavour a French army of 420,000 men was almost completely annihilated,
only some ten thousand soldiers survived the catastrophe.
Picture this: you need to plot data describing two large geographic
entities, spanning the enormous period of 1,700 years, and you have no
interactive tools at hand. No software, no templates, no filter, no button,
no zoom, no switch. How in the world are you going to create a compelling
visualisation for this data set, one that enables both overview and insight
into the details?
Timelines seem like such a „natural idea“ these days that we
don’t even notice their ubiquity anymore: Facebook timeline, news
feeds, graphic interfaces for back-up versions – how did anyone manage
their life before there were things like this?
Do you know that thing when you draft a project and anticipate it will
come out nicely, and once you actually start looking into it things get
really complicated? This is what happened to me with this severe beauty of
a tree diagram here. I stumbled upon it in the Beinecke digital collections
and was immediately thrilled about this hidden gem from back in 1608. Then
I never came around to really studying it — until just now.