Data Display: Lessons from Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is possibly the most famous Victorian after Queen Victoria herself. She is perhaps best known for her achievements in the advancement of nursing St. Thomas’ Hospital – which, in fact, is fairly near my office here in London! However, Nightingale is probably less well-known for her achievements in statistics; in fact, Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician and statistician. Nightingale is now credited with the invention of a type of polar area chart, known as a Nightingale’s Rose or Coxcomb. Here’s an example:

It is even possible that Nightingale’s success is due, in part, to her ability to get her point across by displaying data in a way that meant the message of the data was clear to the information consumers. Nightingale used the Nightingale’s Rose diagrams to display data on seasonal sources of patient mortality in the Crimean military field hospital where she cared for soldiers. She aimed these illustrations at civil servants who had no background in mathematical or statistical reasoning, in order to qualify her statements about the conditions of medical care.
It’s possible to criticise the Coxcomb on the grounds that it’s like a pie chart, and we know how troublesome those critters can be for comparison and so on. Stephen Few has written an article about the difficulties in understanding pie charts; it’s a great read, and you can get it from here. It’s easy to forget that, at the time, Nightingale’s statistical display of data was an incredibly innovative method of communicating this type of information. The results of her work in displaying the data are clear to see; her persuasiveness ensured that nursing was changed to a employ a more formal, structured education process, and to include a focus on both mind and body as part of the healing process. Further, her work had a direct impact on the care of her patients in the Crimean war.
It’s the same with any data; the point has to be made clearly. There are some great guidelines in Stephen Few’s blog and I will refer you to the master himself. As specified in a previous blog, SSAS 2008 browser just does not display the data in a user-friendly way. On the plus side, there are plenty of applications that allow you to show off your cube in a user-friendly way. Reporting Services, PerformancePoint and Report Builder are designed to do this, but some non-Microsoft goodies include Tableau, XLCubed and FractalEdge.
Take-away point: display your data well in order to say what you mean…

2 thoughts on “Data Display: Lessons from Florence Nightingale

  1. Thanks for the Tableau shoutout, Jen! I remember being really impressed with Florence Nightingale's graphics when I saw Edward Tufte discussing them. I'm surprised you didn't mention his favorite graphic of Napoleon's march. (We did our own version of the Napoleon visualization during the )last Seattle snowstorm…)

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