BBC Future

The power and beauty of data visualisation in science

  • Ocean colour scheme
    This map from 1685 illustrates ocean currents as understood at the time, based on the observations of explorers and mariners. (British Library)
  • Current view
    Fast forward to the present, and this striking Nasa animation visualises the flow of ocean surface currents from June 2005 to December 2007. (Nasa)
  • Outbreak alert
    The map said to have changed the world – John Snow’s street-by-street look at cholera transmission changed the way we understand how diseases spread. (British Library)
  • Casualties of war
    In this diagram, Florence Nightingale showed more Crimean War soldiers died from preventable epidemic diseases (blue) than from battlefield wounds (red). (British Library)
  • Storm captured
    Robert FitzRoy, best known as the HMS Beagle captain, also helped create the modern weather service with drawings like this of how storms and cyclones develop. (British Library)
  • Prediction map
    Epidemic Planet is based on the Global Epidemic and Mobility model, which researchers used to accurately forecast the 2009 pandemic influenza outbreak. (GLEAMviz Team)
  • Gloomy view
    This chart compares Dutch weather data to the way people talk about it on social media. Overall, Dutch weather is predominantly rated negatively. (Clever°Franke)
Graphs, charts and other data visualisations have changed the way we see, interpret and understand the world around us.

An exhibition at the British Library in London reveals the importance that visualising data has had on the scientific process – from 19th Century ship logs that still influence climate science, to models used to forecast the 2009 influenza pandemic.

These images not only aid scientific progress, but also help to change the world. When Florence Nightingale demonstrated that more soldiers in the Crimean War died in hospitals from preventable epidemic diseases than on the battlefield she helped to save countless lives, a legacy that continues today.

If ever there was an image with the power to alter the world forever it’s John Snow’s map of cholera spread in London. His map of outbreaks in 19th Century London showed that cases were clustered around a water pump, thanks to contamination from germs (then a new idea). This changed the way we saw a disease; and the British celebrate Snow’s achievements in perhaps the best way they know how – by having a pub named after him near the site.

[Disclosure: the exhibition features infographics from Future contributors David Spiegelhalter and David McCandless from Information is Beautiful]

To see our full gallery of infographics – from a timeline of the far far future, to all of Doctor Who’s journeys, click here.

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