Big data: The 100-year-old buzzword

What a book from 1914 can teach us today about data

hollerith tabulating machine

Visual analytics and data science are hot. As we create more data than ever before, we seek newer, better, faster ways to make sense of it and to know what actions we should take to improve our world. We’re told that this is the age of big data, and that’s a new thing. But the truth is that data has been hot for 100 years and the challenges to see it and understand it are fundamentally the same.

In 1914, New Yorker Willard Brinton wrote the first book on communicating data, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts. “Millions of dollars yearly are spent in the collection of data,” he said. Those who could afford cutting-edge punch-card processing machines could handle more data than ever before (around 3,000 records per hour, to be precise!).

Processing and communicating this information was as vital then as it is now because, in Brinton’s words, “there is danger in giving too much information and too many facts to executives of small brain capacity.” Ouch. Brinton realized that the employee who could convert big data into digestible, actionable insights would be the most successful.

His book, a manual on visual analytics, stands tall today. It’s had a huge impact on me, because, 101 years after its publication, I’m amazed at how many visualization basics are still ignored, or unknown.

The challenges are always the same. The volume of data we have has always been growing. Alongside that, the tools we have to store, process and analyze the data have also grown. Those tools always feel like they’re just that little bit behind what we want to do with them. This is a reality, one that isn’t new, since marketing professionals put everything into the big data bucket.

The guidelines for effective data communication are simple to learn, increasingly backed up by strong academic research. And yet we see the same errors today as Brinton did in 1914.

Graphic Methods for Presenting Charts, Willard Brinton, 1914
pie chart big grab

Let’s look at a couple of examples from his book, which are relevant today.

First, he was adamant about choosing the right charts. Right out of the gate, he blasted pie charts and radar charts. “Banish them to the scrap heap,” he demanded. Don’t use area charts when bars or lines do just right. Always start your axes at zero. These are great guidelines I wish people would understand today.

Second, he knew, 100 years ago, that interactivity was vital. Today we drag and drop to interact, but he envisaged a system of index cards, each with a small section of data, which could be moved around a table to give different perspectives on a dataset. Seeing different perspectives on your data was as vital then as it is now.

index cards with caption Graphic methods for presenting facts by Brinton, Willard Cope

Third, he came up with a checklist for people communicating data. It’s a list that could be printed out and placed on the desk of analysts today. If people today applied critical thought to the way they present data, there would be huge improvements in communicating data.

One hundred years have elapsed and visual literacy is still a big issue. Few of the challenges are truly new, but today we have the platforms to learn, share and discuss ideas, opportunities and challenges. Over time we can improve all of society’s visual literacy.

My ambition with this blog is to be one small step along that path. In another 100 years, I hope that all will understand analytics and effective data communication. I hope you enjoy the journey with me, and if you want to find out much more about Brinton and his book, please check out this blog:

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