Why history matters in data visualization

In any thesis or academic peer-reviewed paper, positioning your work in context of prior research is paramount to show your unique contribution and how your work “stands on the shoulders of giants”[ref].

My recent PhD thesis goes beyond the typical references of the last 10-20 years in my field (data visualization) and even the origins of my field (arguably, the foundations were set 50 years ago by Jacques Bertin [ref]).  I look beyond the field to other old domains such as cartography, typography and the arts.


A lot of what we are “inventing” in visualization have precedents in history and other domains. If there are precedents – maybe something was learned over the other field that we can leverage? Here’s a few of examples:

Sunburst chart
(aka hierarchical pie chart, concentric chart)

John Stasko and Eugene Zhang did this great visualization of a sunburst chart back in 2000. It’s a great approach to intuitively show hierarchical data. And you can find many great implementations on D3 these days too:


But there are earlier precedents. I particularly like this one: A Zoological Chart from Fike’s Concentric Charts of the Sciences, from 1890 (110 years earlier than Sunburst):


There are some really interesting details here in this pre-sunburst chart. Text rotates to best fit each segment – and spaced out to fill wide wedges, tight for narrow wedges. There are great little images out at the edge of the hierarchy, presumably a great way to engage bored students. Delicate colors that don’t fight with the text. And particularly interesting, the chart is padded with empty slots so that the each circle is complete – not ragged like most sunburst charts.

Word Trees

Word trees are awesome. The examples by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas are viscerally and intellectually engaging with wonderful examples from classic texts. Not as many examples in D3.js, and, unfortunately, IBM’s Many Eyes implementation no longer exists:


But there are interesting earlier examples. How about this example from 1541 in a text by Loys Vasse?

It’s a sentence that’s been structurally split into a tree. It’s quite similar to the WordTree, in that sentences can be split apart into trees, whether representing repetition across many sentences (such as WordTree) or logically structuring content (such as Vasse’s example). In fact, this hierarchical structuring of text lasts for hundreds of years in print documents. We can see examples 200 years later in Chambers’ Cyclopedia in 1720:


Interestingly, the approach is not strictly limited to trees, but can be generalized to draw sentences as directed acyclic graphs, such as this example (again from Vasse): WordTreeLoysVasse1541.PNG

So what?

Why do we care about these old examples? They aren’t interactive, they don’t dynamically update to different content and they were certainly difficult to create in their old technologies.

They are important because they show other approaches for solving similar problems.

In the early 2000’s I had a particularly vexing project where we needed to show a hierarchy and through the design process both tree maps and sunbursts were rejected by the client, as were other representations such as a graph, a file structure, a radial graph, and so on. All were “too complicated”. This was pre-D3, so lots of prototyping code was being written (and discarded). Instead, we revved a sunburst with padding, so that the chart was always fully circular, not ragged. The client loved it. Two years later, I saw Fike’s Concentric Charts and was impressed that Fike found a similar solution 115 years earlier. If I’d been aware of Fike’s example, we might have reached the solution faster with less code.

Similarly, the old word trees hint at other potential uses for Word Trees. And so on.


If we assume that old techniques are interesting, then what? How do we find these old examples? You can’t find “concentric charts” via Google Search if you don’t know the search term. And since Fike’s concentric charts predate the Internet (and have a very tiny Internet footprint), even searching for “concentric charts” doesn’t return these vintage results. So far, browsing is the best answer that I have: on-line such as archive.org, museum websites, library websites, antique prints, blogs, etc. But also, browsing in the real-world, such as museums, art galleries and libraries.

Let me know if you find any more great charts by Fike: despite the plural “charts” in Fike’s title, the above chart is the only example I’ve found.

About richardbrath

Richard is a long time visualization designer and researcher. Professionally, I am one of the partners of Uncharted Software Inc. I have recently completed a PhD in data visualization at LSBU. The opinions on this blog are related to my personal interests in data visualization, particularly around research interests related to my PhD work- this blog is about exploratory aspects of data visualization not proven principles.
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1 Response to Why history matters in data visualization

  1. Pingback: Word Stems Visualized | richardbrath

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