I think I have always loved visual displays of information (or, as David Letterman would say, charts and graphs!!). I remember as a kid poring over the World Book charts of stuff like cattle production that used little cows as symbols. Presenting data visually can reveal relationships that aren’t apparent in other forms (a list of crime scene addresses, for example, is a lot less helpful than a good old map and push pins.) Hence, it’s no surprise that I have been a long time fan of the work of Ed Tufte. He was a pretty famous political scienctist who became a star by taking up how best to present data visually, or as the title of his first book says, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Perhaps the coolest among the many cool things in that book was his unearthing of the amazing graph above. As Tufte says “Probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, this map by Charles Joseph Minard portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.” (Read more about why this is so cool in the book.)
You should poke around his web site, although ironically, for someone who is a champion of white space and clean presentation, the web site is very cluttered looking. He is also famous for a little monograph he published about how Power Point makes you stupid. Well, not really–that’s my wording. But he does argue that forcing information into bullet lists and one screen formats can have pretty dire consequences.
Anyway, this all comes up because Slate featured a guy named Ben Fry whose work I did not know and is taking it to the next step using computing (maybe this is old hat to some of you.)
Check out some examples of his work that Slate put together. The zip code one is a lot of fun–be sure to hit the zoom button as you go.
And check out this very interesting way of analyzing movies (another broad topic of this blog.)
There seem to be a lot of other really interesting applications of his software in the gallery, but a fair number of the links didn’t work for me.
This is also related to my interest in thinking spatially about social science questions and GIS, but we’ll take that up another day.