Florence Nightingale and putting data into action

23 February 2016

The Big Bang Data Exhibition in London is well worth a visit, not just because it is a good excuse to take your mind off the day-to-day pressures of working in the NHS, but for the insight into what data can do for us now and the predictions about what it might help us do in the future.

One of the exhibits that stood out for me was Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of British Army. Widely credited as bringing the pie chart to public attention, Nightingale used it to present data on mortality in the British Army during the Crimean War. In 1858 she presented her visualisations to the health department and was able to demonstrate that deaths from preventable diseases were significantly higher than deaths from battlefield wounds. Her work was pioneering and led to an improvement in the conditions of the hospitals and deaths being cut by two thirds.

The way she presented her data was meticulous and painstaking, but above she did it in a way that is easy to understand. Her celebrated diagram helped her convince the government of the need for change. This approach is reflected in the work we are doing at Beautiful Information. We believe in ‘data into action’. That means taking time to present data so that it can be used to make a change. As we know this is nothing new. However, until now we haven’t been very good at making data easy to grasp, particularly in the NHS. The exhibition’s organisers make the case well:

“The power of visualisation with data is now prevalent across all forms of life, as our world becomes flooded with large quantities of data, and the Internet of Things pumps data into the tech stratosphere at a faster rate than ever before. How we experience the world around us during this time of technological innovation and change reinforces the prominence of Nightingale’s reports for the Industrial Revolution. All forms of corporations from the media to health, entertainment to government are dependent on analytical visual techniques, tracking our data, in order to portray a story, or put through a policy by visualising large data sets.”

Marc Farr
Founder, Beautiful Information