The Power of Data Visualization

The Power of Data Visualization

Today the UK officially observed Remembrance Day. As a Canadian, I’m very familiar with Remembrance Day. The ceremony itself is pretty much the same in the Commonwealth countries as it is here. As a Guelphite (Guelph being the birthplace of Lt. Col. John McCrae), I know In Flanders Fields off by heart, and have been part of an eery choir reciting it in unison. I’ve even once held a rifle on my shoulder pointed up into the air and fired it three times as part of a Remembrance Day ceremony when I was an army cadet (don’t ask, long story). I felt like I’d seen Remembrance Day from every possible angle.

Except for one.

Remembrance Day is all about veterans past and present. That I understand: I’ve always understood it that way. War is hell. I get it in that way that you do when you hope you never really get it, if you know what I mean. Canada lost 45,000 young lives to WWII alone. Worthy of noting, certainly. Worthy of the ceremony, I think. I understand why the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth mark Remembrance Day with so much solemnity.

But for Canada, the loss of those soldiers’ lives is the biggest and most devastating element of the World Wars. Not to say that life in Canada wasn’t impacted by the wars in many other ways, but by and large, honouring military personnel once a year to remember the wars makes sense. London had a very different experience.

Screen Shot 2013-11-10 at 4.25.20 PMThis is a map of London with a red pin marking the site of every bomb dropped on it during the Blitz.  I’m familiar with the history of World War II, of course. I knew London was bombed in a concerted manner over an extended period of time. It’s one thing to have that knowledge; it’s quite another, I find, to see it mapped out like this. It’s one thing to know exactly how many bombs were dropped on London, and know how many days of constant bombing there were, and quite another to see it like this.

I honestly find it strange to observe Remembrance Day in London without any mention the suffering this city endured. Not just civilian loss of life, though that’s hardly insignificant, but what was certainly civilian terror night after night, the loss of neighbourhoods, and the loss of a tremendous amount architectural history. On this map I discovered that a bomb landed across the street from me. (That, I assume, explains the one 1950s structure across the road in a sea of Victorian terraces.) It’s so close it would have shattered all our windows, at least. My bedroom window overlooks where that bomb must have fallen. I can’t imagine the terror of waiting, night after night, to see if a bomb is going to fall on your house, or your neighbours’. And you look at that map and realize that everyone in London would have had the experience of a hearing a bomb that was heading for them. It would be hard to not being within close proximity of the spot where one (or more) fell. I have now learned that I even on a very slow and lazy day, I pass at least 6 different bomb sites just walking to a tube station or sauntering down the street. But there’s no mention of that trauma in the ceremonies. “Stiff upper lip,” they tell me. “The soldiers had it worse.” Okay. Sure. Maybe. It’s not a zero sum game, though. Look at that map. There are so many pins in that map you can’t even tell what you’re looking at.

This is the power of data visualization. It allows a human brain to make sense of information in a very human way. In a very personal way, sometimes, as I’m experiencing it.

I’m finding it challenging to be in this city, and love this city as I am increasingly doing, and not have strong feelings about how terribly it’s suffered in the recent past. It suffered before that, of course. There’s the conquests, the plagues, the fires that intermittently burned the whole place down. It was abandoned at one point in it’s history, then later reclaimed and rebuilt. But there’s also this damage, the Blitz, mapped out and modern, inarguable. I’m having a retroactive emotional reaction to the Blitz, is what. As if it just happened. All because of well-presented information.

This image is a screenshot of a completely fascinating project called Bomb Sight. It merges the 1940-1941 bomb census held at the National Archives with geographical information in public view. It’s amazing how bringing streams of publicly available data together seems to add a whole other dimension; it’s as if there’s something new being stated, even though the components are all well-known. I’m not sure how to characterize that new dimension, exactly; in some ways it seems like well-illustrated context, but there’s got to be more to it than that. Maybe it’s just the act of letting you hold a large amount of information in your head at the same time, letting you get a bird’s eye view of it in a way you can’t without the help of an accurate visualization. A table of dates and locations wouldn’t explain itself as well as this map does. It lets you see the forest in spite of the trees. It lets you make sense of it all in a very visceral way. I can work with this information, I can apply it and use that knowledge immediately; maybe that’s the extra dimension. It’s allowing me to take the next step without as much labour. It makes the reality of that data easier to see.

This is a plug for big data, for providing access not just to streams of information, but to the tools that allow people to combine them and work with that data in ways that make sense, without having to be an expert on the systems. It’s also an acknowledgement that data can change the way you understand a place, or an idea, or a ceremony, in a very heartfelt and immediate way.

You are indomitable, London. We won’t forget that, either.

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