Tag: Big Data History


ReAppreciating Richard Saul Wurman

Starving for Understanding?

Required historical background reading for anyone joining Humantific is Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety, published in this first edition in 1989. Years later Richard did a refresh and republished the book as Information Anxiety 2. The later version is easier to find than the original book. Either is recommended if you want to better understand the remarkable time-warp story of how the Understanding Business, the Explaining Business, the SenseMaking Business actually preceded, by decades, the Big Data business.

Of course, all of the technology-related references inside Information Anxiety are now dated, but Richard’s central message remains even more relevant today than when it first appeared. Forget all the Big Data buzz for a moment. It was 20+ years ago that Richard began expressing concern about “the black hole between data and knowledge” and “the widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand”. It is rather amazing to consider Information Anxiety in the timeline of technology history. It was in 1989 that the world-wide-web began appearing in public and Apple introduced its Mac SE/30 and the Mac 11ci, running at 25 MHz with an 80 megabyte hard drive!Continue Reading..


Making Sense of the Early SenseMakers

Thank you, William Playfair… for going beyond the words and the numbers.

As part of a “White Paper” we are doing at Humantific on the subject of data visualization, I have been enjoying revisiting some of the historical material from the 18th century. I always enjoy looking at the logic behind early data visualizations and learn a lot from the perspective of how to make things more understandable and clear.

For this study, I am spending more time specifically on William Playfair (1759-1823), among the first persons to create graphic representations of data (He was preceded by Joseph Priestly, who created the first timeline chart in 1765). Playfair is credited with being the inventor of line, bar and pie charts. For this paper, I am not focusing so much on how the charts work or don’t work, but, rather, what were they pictures of.

 William Playfair’s historic “Commercial and Political Atlas”, 1786,
described as the first major work to contain statistical graphs.

Reflecting on when this happened… I started to wonder: If Playfair came up with one of the first graphical representations of data, how did people make sense of all those numbers before? I mean, really, how did people actually make sense of everything before? 

When someone says the airplane was invented, we all think, “Wow, that was amazing,” but we don’t always put ourselves at that moment of time, and think about what it meant to not be able to get on a flight to go see your family across the ocean, to go down to the Caribbean for a beautiful vacation, to go to a meeting, etc, etc. I guess most of us would be much closer to our original birthplaces–and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be going back that often.

So, back to that time when Playfair had that inspiration to represent numbers visually… or, as he called it, making “Data speak to the eyes”.  Being a visual learner, I can’t imagine what that would be like… the fact that studying any subject, would be just words and numbers. Would my ability to understand and learn (and go to the next level of learning and development) be seriously diminished? What would school have been for me growing up? Not that my school years reflected a tremendous amount of meaningful visualization, but it definitely was part of the vocabulary and it helped me learn better.

The second thought I had, was, being such a visual sensemaker myself, would I have started to draw things intuitively to understand them, or would I have stayed in that highly verbal world and struggled to operate in it?

I guess that we will never know the true answer to those questions since we can’t go back and unlearn all the visual language we now take for granted; however, I would venture to say (and I am sure many others would too) that it’s pretty likely that my ability to learn and excel would be diminished quite a bit. A highly verbal language only speaks to a part of the population, as we know from many studies on cognition and multiple intelligence theories.

Thank you, Playfair, for going beyond the words and the numbers, and revealing what is behind the data. For all of us visual thinkers and learners, it’s made a big difference! Really.


[ And thank you to Howard Wainer and Ian Spence for republishing Playfair’s The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary ]

More on William Playfair on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Playfair

Image Source: Playfair, William. The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary. Wainer, H. and Spence, I., Eds. 2005. Humantific Collection, New York. Reproduced from Playfair’s Atlas, 3rd ed. London: J. Wallis, 1801.

Related on this Humantific blog:

Consider TIME / Big Data for WHEN?


Isotype Building Bridges

We are happy to share more historical sensemaking images from Humantific’s Isotype Collection. Active long before the “Big Data Era” arrived these Isotype examples are from 1943.

In early Isotype studio work, one can find many great examples of sensemaking acceleration techniques that are still in use today, including the comparison. Experts in presenting complex data-informed subjects clearly, the Isotype Institute team often used comparisons to help explain differences and similarities between groups, regions, and countries.

Reflecting a “simpler” time in history, Isotype work often (not always) involved two-party comparisons on select issues, as in this example. In this 1943 book, America and Britan, Only an Ocean Between, published in London for an English speaking audience, numerous aspects of the two countries are compared. In addition, a few 9-10 country comparisons are included in “18 Pictoral Charts Designed by Isotype Institute.” This human-centered approach to book creation, combining text, photographs, and diagrams, was referred to by the authors as “Reading Without Tears.”

As in much of Isotype work, the underlying purpose was optimistic and constructive: to build a bridge; to help accelerate understanding between diverse humans with the hope that this might create a better world.

From the book’s Foreword, by John Winant, then American Ambassador to Great Britain:

“America and Britain are learning to know one another… Such mutual knowledge will be more than ever essential when the battle ends and the task of reconstruction lies before us…If this century is to be the century of the common man, the common man must be informed of the facts by every means in the power of the expert — by writing, by pictures, by charts. For only so can he form the judgements on which a durable and democratic international reconstruction depends. This book will, I am sure, help to bridge whatever ocean still flows between our two countries’ knowledge and understanding of each other.”

Isotype created the visual symbol language (“International Picture Language”) as well as the diagrams. Considering that computers did not exist then, it is clear that Isotype Institute created—by hand—a staggering amount of excellent-quality social sensemaking material during their time. Even with its imperfections, much of that work remains inspiring for many still today.

Image Source: Florence, L. Secor. America and Britain, Only An Ocean Between. 1943. Diagrams designed by the Isotype Institute. Humantific Collection, New York.


More on Isotype Institute 

GK VanPatter: What is SenseMaking?
[Speaking at SenseMaker Dialogs]

GK VanPatter: SenseMaking / The Karl Weick Question

CoCreation Missing No More: See: Markets for Giving Workshop