/ 17.02.20

Revolutionary data – when data visualisation saves lives

A Google alert from a rather non-reliable source claimed that it was 10 years ago today that data visualisation officially became a 'thing'?

Highly sceptical I thought that I'd carry out a quick fact-finding exercise. This led to research that demanded some data storytelling! A case study of one of the earliest recognitions of: the art of data visualisation and the profound impact it had on systems, on progress and on reform.


Florence Nightingale was, without a doubt, a true iconoclast but also a much lesser-known hero of modern design disciplines.

Her pioneering successes are limitless, but this article concentrates on the impact of her obsession with data; explicitly during her time nursing in the Crimean war.

A feminist pioneer, she eschewed her family class and many suitors to choose a life 'beneath her', and at the mere age of 34 she raised independent, philanthropic funding to lead a team to Scutari (1854) during the Crimean war to mount an emergency nursing effort.

Disease was rampant, and unnecessary red tape was preventing essential medical supplies arriving on time. If anything, the opposing army was the least of the British soldiers' worries.

The problems were being ignored, and it was only due to Florence's keen observation and use of logic and reason that paved the way for change.

In this period of her life, she recruited and trained nurses, designed a prefabricated hospital and shipped it over to Turkey, built her own hot laundry kitchen and improved supply lines. But how does this have anything to do with data I hear you ask?

The answer, and perhaps her most important lesson to us, is that administration and process saved many more lives than the best medical science. Indeed, many years before the germ theory of disease was accepted, she was enforcing an obsessive approach to sanitation.

Florence was methodical in her approach to collating data, and her report 'Mortality of the British army' published in 1858 was packed full of charts and tables of data.

By compiling vast tables of statistics about how many people had died and when and converting into visual form, she was able to save more lives.

The goal of her visualisation:

To affect through the Eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof Ears. She galvanised systematic change in hospital operations and design and promoted a revolution in sanitation which led to an increase in Britain's average national life expectancy by 20 years.

After the war, she befriended William Farr - a data visualisation pioneer who helped her to see the potential in the data she had assembled during her time in Scutari. Collaborating across statistical design innovations, she became obsessed with data quality and standardisation.

Even by today's standards, her data visualisation is prescriptive; designed to facilitate the necessary reforms.

She even invented a new chart form to advance her arguments: a comparative polar-area diagram known today as the Nightingale rose. After the war and analysis of her mortality data with Farr, she published three rose diagrams; the broad goal - to show death from epidemic disease was preventable by intervention.


Compelling arguments were made and won by analysing her data illustrations.

For example, her most famous pair of roses (her coxcomb shown above) displaying the primary causes of army mortality, illustrated that more soldiers die of preventable diseases than from wounds in battle.

Data helped her achieve a new perspective and provided clear evidence to defuse her doubters.

Something to think about when we design new data visualisations and data tools......Perhaps now more than ever they really could be used to change the world.