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First use of an Infographic? The answer will surprise you


Infographics seem to be everywhere these days. In fact, they are so pervasive I am thinking of turning my monitor on end to see them better. But who created the first infographic which actually drove an important decision? The answer is surprising.

Florence Nightingale.

Although usually represented as “The Lady with the Lamp” ministering to wounded soldiers (and was thus depicted on the £10 note for many years), she invented the discipline of modern nursing due to her ability to present data in a new and compelling way.

Her greatest triumph was not in the Crimea, but in London in the House of Commons. Her research in the field led her to the conclusion that the most significant cause of death was disease, so she developed a new form of pie chart to illustrate the main sources of infection. She knew that Members of Parliament and civil servants would have been unlikely to read or understand traditional statistical reports.

Her infographic is a lesson to any Big Data engineer in how to present data — not only so that it’s clear to any reader,  but to inspire to action as well. You can see the original infographic and a commentary here.

Once you see Nightingale’s graph, the picture is clear. The real enemies were cholera, typhus, and dysentery. The outcome was a radical change in the set-up of field hospitals and thousands of lives were saved.

With the avalanche of Big Data just around the corner, and the incredible power of Data Visualisation tools such as Lumira and others, we again are facing the challenges that Nightingale faced. Our business managers, just like those Victorian MPs, are too busy to dig into data, lack the mathematical background or refuse to look at another 20-page PowerPoint deck.

We can learn the following:

  • Choose Big problems. The mortality of the troops was affecting Britain’s entire foreign policy in the Near East. Is what you are working on going to make a significant difference in your company?
  • Hunt down new data sources. No one had analysed the records from the field hospitals before. And next time you complain that data is hard to get, imagine waiting six months for ledgers to be shipped from a war zone.
  • Let the picture tell the story. Nightingale invented a whole new graph type. How creative are you being in painting the right picture?
  • Make sure the analysis yields a result. The analysis doesn’t end with the meeting: it ends with action being taken. You will probably need to present the data in multiple ways, to different stakeholders and be persistent.

It is good to know that the creator of the pie chart was honoured on the same set of banknotes as Newton, Wellington and Shakespeare.

About the author
James Marland
Vice President of Network Strategy - Ariba (Twitter: @JamesMarland)

James is responsible for defining and rolling out strategies for the Network with particular focus on Europe. He joined Ariba at the launch of the Ariba Network in 1998 after previously being a Solution Consultant at SAP America. In addition he ha... Read More >>>

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