Florence Nightingale and the birth of modern infographics

Florence Nightingale and the birth of modern infographics

Information saves lives. 

There are hundreds of examples of information saving lives: from road data informing the position of speed cameras and speed limits, to individual medical data informing live-saving treatment. But in order to be beneficial, information first has to be understood.

Florence Nightingale knew that visualisation was one of the best ways to achieve this. After the disasters of the Crimean War, Florence developed the visual presentation of soldier deaths from disease, using statistical graphics in reports to Parliament. She realised that this was the most effective way of bringing data to life. As a consequence she made a lasting and important impact in soldiers’ health and prevented countless deaths from preventable causes. 

Visualising data to make it digestible and enjoyable is clearly not a new concept. Today however, ‘big data’ has become a business mantra and globally recognised brands have sprung up around the idea of processing and organising information. Yet even so, data can be misunderstood and unhelpfully imagined as numbers in a spreadsheet rather than a thing of beauty or a ‘Nightingale’s Rose’. 

Unfortunately when information is displayed poorly, communication can fail and the message can be lost. A century and a half ago, this could have had hugely negative implications for a young nurse trying to change the course of medical history in times of war. In a modern business context, badly presented data can affect the bottom line.  

Information is only useful if decision makers can understand it, engage with it and take action. Effective visualisations can enable businesses to find meaning in otherwise raw and difficult-to-understand figures. With the appropriate interpretation and presentation, data can become a powerful tool. And a powerful ally.

Florence Nightingale understood the importance of visualising data in order to tell a clear story. She recognised how to put meaningful data into context to allow parliament to understand her message at a glance. Very little has changed in 150 years, making Florence one of the most prolific Information heroes of her time. 

Well-designed, informative graphics can communicate, inspire and motivate more than a spreadsheet or written comment ever could. The fact is beautiful data is an excellent tool. In 1856, a young nurse understood this. And today, the most successful businesses do too. 

For more information search Twitter for #infohero or read the full Information Heroes series at website.