Note: the first part of this post may not be of much interest to many people. But if you scroll down, you will see a couple of really cool animations of data.
Charles Joseph Minard (27 March 1781 – 24 October 1870) was a French civil engineer recognized for his significant contribution in the field of information graphics in civil engineering and statistics. Minard was, among other things, noted for his representation of numerical data on geographic maps, especially his flow maps.
Minard is best known for his cartographic depiction of numerical data on a map of Napoleon’s disastrous losses suffered during the Russian campaign of 1812. The illustration depicts Napoleon’s army departing the Polish-Russian border. A thick band illustrates the size of his army at specific geographic points during their advance and retreat. It displays six types of data in two dimensions: the number of Napoleon’s troops; the distance traveled; temperature; latitude and longitude; direction of travel; and location relative to specific dates without making mention of Napoleon; Minard’s interest lay with the travails and sacrifices of the soldiers.
The numbers of men present are represented by the widths of the colored zones at a rate of one millimeter for every ten thousand men; they are further written across the zones. The red designates the men who enter Russia, the black those who leave it.
Modern information scientists say the 1869 map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn. French scientist, physiologist, and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey praised “its brutal eloquence, which seems to defy the pen of the historian”. Information designer Edward Tufte says it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn” and uses it as a prime example in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Howard Wainer identified Minard’s map as a “gem” of information graphics, nominating it as the “World’s Champion Graph”. The Economist described it as one of “three of history’s best” charts.
That’s a lot of praise, but it is not universal.
One prominent voice criticizing the graph is that of Seth Godin, who said in a speech:
Tufte is really proud of this graph. He says this is the best graph ever made. I think he is completely out of his gourd and totally wrong. I think this is one of the worst graphs ever made. He’s very happy because it shows five different pieces of information on three axes and if you study it for 15 minutes it really is worth 1000 words. I don’t think that is what graphs are for. I think you are trying to make a point in two seconds for people who are too lazy to read the forty words underneath. To make me take 15 minutes to study it doesn’t make sense. And I thought about it and I was going to jump all over him, then I moved it to this section, ’cause he picked it because it is broken on purpose. For the kind of person that you want to reach, they want to read a complicated, difficult to understand graph and get the satisfaction of figuring it out. Sometimes the best thing to do it so break it for the people you don’t care about and just make it work for the people you do.
I’m not sure that Seth is really criticizing Minard’s graph; I think what he is doing is stressing the importance of tailoring your graph to your audience. Some people, historians for example, probably love all the detail in the graph. A casual observer just trying to get a sense of what happened to Napoleon’s army may not want to spend the time necessary to fully interpret such a graph. Seth, as he is prone to do, favors keeping things as simple as possible. I’m with Seth on keeping things simple.
But I have to agree with many people who are impressed with Minard’s graph. It did take a me a while to fully understand all the information that is contained within the confines of the graph, but once I did, it’s fascinating to see how he was able to show so much in just two dimensions.
Now there are tools available to show data over time, using animations.
I found the following two videos a fascinating way to tell a story using data visualization techniques.
Thanks to John at SalsaWorldTraveler for this one
For this next one, try to guess which fast-food franchise will have the highest number of outlets at the end of 2019. The answer surprised me. Thanks to Ray at Mitigating Chaos for this one.
I love how the video ends, by saying that data is beautiful.
And I’d have to agree, but how it is presented makes all the difference…
*image from Wikipedia