How We’ve Been Visualising Big Data Over the Centuries

Published February 22, 2014   |   
Victoria Turk

“Big data” might be a modern buzzword, but the concept goes back as long as people have been collecting records (albeit with our perception of what counts as “big” growing over the years). And while interactive data visualisations and infographics might be new to the world of digital media, the art of illustrating data has a long history.

In its first science exhibition, which opened yesterday, the British Library is showing off some iconic scientific diagrams, new and old, from the country’s science collection. It’s a consideration of how scientific and technological advances have shaped the way we visualise information. Johanna Kieniewicz, lead curator of the exhibition, said they particularly wanted to draw links between data past and present: “Data that is centuries old from collections like ours is now being used to inform cutting edge science.”

Called “Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight,” the exhibition focuses on three general areas of research: public health, weather and evolution. Here’s a tour through some of the highlights.

From 1603, London parish clerks started collecting public health data to monitor plague deaths. A citizen called John Graunt, recognised as one of the first demographers, gathered 50 years of the data in his 1662 book Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality, which according to the British Library comprised the first known tables of public health data. They also gave the first statistically based estimation of London’s population.

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