Florence Nightingale, Data & Humans

When you think of Florence Nightingale, you probably think of her as a nurse, and she was. She was also far more than that and was a pioneer of data visualization…in the 1800's! She also made hospitals cleaner and safer. Florence wrote over 150 books and pamphlets as well. And she was a statistician. Florence was brilliant with numbers and the ability to solve complex problems. Her insights into data however, remain a lesson today for dealing with data and technology itself.

It was Nightingale’s data that she presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856 that lead to the Royal Commission to improve the health of the British Army, which impacted hospitals and militaries around the world. Her skill with numbers and her ability to create data visualizations saw her elected in 1858 as the first woman of the Royal Statistics Society. Queen Victoria even awarded her $250,000 to continue her work. That was quite a sum back then.

What Nightingale understood very early on was that human brains are not designed to make sense of really large numbers. She saw that data is abstract until it is put into context in a way that people can understand…and even more crucially that people understand people.

Intuitively, Florence knew very well how to tell stories. Humans communicate through stories and stories are a key part of a culture, along with music, rituals, art and behaviours. This insight into how data can best be used set humanity on a course to where we are today. A key feature of any spreadsheet software is the ability to visualize data, from pie charts to bar charts, scatter plots, radars and more. If you’ve ever seen or used any sort of data visualization tool, you’re seeing an idea that came into being over 130 years ago!

In today’s world, we rely ever more on data. And while there are more data visualization, analysis and management tools than ever before, no matter how good they are, they’re useless if we can’t put them into context and most importantly, tell a story that connects people to people.

Florence Nightingale teaches us two critically important lessons about data. It must put raw data into context in a way our brains can understand clearly and simple. Secondly, we must be able to tell a story from the data that resonates at a human level.

As our world becomes ever more complex and the problems we must solve for become larger in scale and intricately more complicated, our ability to visualize complexity will become more critical as well. Artificial Intelligence and powerful analytics tools will help us in ways that are vital. But the ability to tell stories from those insights will remain a human capability. First, we shape technology, then technology shapes us…then we shape our world through culture.

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