Making sense in data visualization

Benjamin MacDonald Schmidt


The data visualization moment.

Charles Joseph Minard: Map of emigration

Real-time wind map

Rules for data visualization, 1915

Medical imaging color schemes

Upper left is a bad color scheme; the upper right better reflects the data; the lower two highlight particular phenomena of the brain.

Color Schemes

Data visualization as political rhetoric

Lying with statistics

John Tukey

The "Anscombe quartet"

Four datasets with identical statistical properties.

Francis Anscombe/graph by Robert Allison

3 questions:

  1. How can we be (and train) better readers of data visualization?
  2. How can we use visualization as evidence without mistaking it for proof?
  3. How can we keep the data visualizations we make exploratory for others?

Yield Curves narrative stories

3 questions:

  1. How can we be (and train) better readers of data visualization?
  2. How can we use visualization as evidence without mistaking it for proof?
  3. How can we keep the data visualizations we make exploratory for others?
  1. Data is a historical artifact
  2. Statistics is the domain of bureaucracies in general, and the state in particular.

Creating Data: Logbooks and the state

Climate metadata, 1789-c.1860 (International Comprehensive Oceanic and Atmospheric Database)

Whaling Logbooks

1848 6 1     3723 29038 02 4    10ISABE*_N   1   5                                                           
165 20779701 69 5 0 1                  FFFFFF77AAAAAAAAAAAA     99 0 790044118480601
3714N 6937W                                                                           NW     51 NW     57 NW   
51                                          201A.STEWART       NEW BEDFORD             WHALING V
OYAGE           2620 199
  1. Filtering
  2. Abstraction
  3. Representation

Matthew Maury

Confederate Navy Engraving 1862, from

Abstract Logbooks

Harvard University Library

Matthew Maury's Wind and Current Charts

CLIWOC vessels (European, 1750-1850)

Reconstructed Shipping Times

Deck 701, US Maury Collection (1789-c.1865)

The expansion of whaling

Deck 701, US Maury Collection (1789-c.1865)

Deck 892, US shipping 1980-1997

Logbook Digitization in the 1920s

Wallbrink, H. and F.B. Koek, Data Acquisition And Keypunching Codes For Marine Meteorological Observations At The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, 1854–1968

Digitized logbooks, c. 1930

Wallbrink and Koek

ICOADS Deck 720, German weather data, 1876-1914

ICOADS Deck 735, Soviet Research Vessels

Closeup of Deck 735. Soviet Vessels near the coast of South America.

ICOADS Deck 735, Russian Research Vessel (R/V) Digitisation

German Deep Drifter Data (via ISDM; originally from IfM/Univ. Kiel)


The Census and the Frontier

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports." This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.

Walker and Gannett

Census Atlases












2007 Census Atlas reproductions

"Modern" Census Atlas by Nathan Yau

Brooklyn Brainery Christmas Gifts

Jim Vallandingham Census Bump Charts

1870 Census atlas, detail

The maps of the census reports show an uneven advance of the farmer's frontier, with tongues of settlement pushed forward and with indentations of wilderness. In part this is due to Indian resistance, in part to the location of river valleys and passes, in part to the unequal force of the centers of frontier attraction.

Turner, Significance

Raw templates for sending maps to printer, 1900 census (National Archives)



Interactive: Shifting frontiers

Georeferencing and training

Census frontiers (red) vs county boundaries


1900: The frontier line returned

County data, 1920 atlas: National Archives

Charles Paullin Historical Atlas, 1932

David Rumsey Historical Maps

Madison Grant, Passing of the Great Race, 1916


1890 Frontier map, detail

National Museum of the American Indian, 2014


  1. The Turner Census
  2. The Exclusion Census
  3. The Punchcard Census
  4. The Lost Census.

Turner, "Western State Making in the Revolutionary Era:" AHR, Volume 1, Issue 1


Organization of cataloging at the Library of Congress, 1909

Organization of cataloging at the Library of Congress, 1909



Hathi Trust Bookworm at



  • Northeastern University/Rice University Cultural Observatory


  • Erez Lieberman Aiden
  • Neva Cherniavsky, Martin Camacho, Matt Nicklay, Billy Janitsch, JB Michel.

HathiTrust grant Partners

Stephen Downie, Peter Organisciak, Loretta Auvil, Colleen Fallaw, Robert McDonald

Publication places over time of all the public domain volumes in Hathi Trust

"database": "hathipd",
"plotType": "map",
"method": "return_json",
"search_limits": {
    "date_year": {
        "$gte": 1800,
        "$lte": 1922
"projection": "albers",
"aesthetic": {
    "time": "date_year",
    "point": "publication_place_geo",
    "size": "TextCount"


Contextual Reading of State of the Union Addresses

Top 30 queries in the Rate My Professors browser, by slant.

Predominantly female:
mean nice helpful unfair annoying rude caring kind disorganized

Predominantly male:
funny smart sexy brilliant boring intelligent genius interesting cute good

No consistent difference:
hot bossy stupid hard bad teacher ugly fair easy dumb bad attractive