Talk & Article: “The Fifty Maps of Minard” (Pamplona)

I have had the great opportunity last week to present at this year’s Malofiej conference one of my currently favorite topics, which I have also mentioned earlier here in this blog, and that is the hidden oeuvre of Charles Joseph Minard. He is somewhat of a superstar in the history of information visualization, famous most of all for his seminal work—the map of the Napoleon’s campaign into Russia and the disastrous consequences for his army.

Edward Tufte popularized this graphic when discussing it in his seminal book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” (1982/2006), when he named it one of the best visualizations ever produced—and it is indeed a stunning piece in its uber-elegant integration of several dimensions of data. However, what fascinated me in this context is that this map is usually treated as an isolated work, since the rest of Minards work is almost unknown. The Napoleon piece was drawn as one of his very last works at the age of 88. But before, Minard had already created a comprehensive body of work which comprised of some 50 statistical maps.

All works courtesy of École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées.
All works courtesy of École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées.

This wealth of historical maps is currently lingering in Paris archives and is unfortunately little known. However, it is very well worth diving into it, as many of the maps contain graphical innovations, and they show how Minard has continually worked on developing and improving his methods of statistical visualization.

So for everyone who has not made it to Pamplona this year, here is a very brief recap: I have discussed six works of Minard in particular, showing how his flow system has evolved, demonstrating his efforts to tell a clear story in his maps and discussing the lack of geographical detail and accuracy as well as his rigor in visualizing statistical numbers.

And I concluded this investigation with my interpretation he was a very dedicated and modern researcher in the field of data visualization, not the least because he worked according to standards which are still deeply valid for us today:

– He strived to make problems easier to understand
– He edited the graphics to have a clear focus
– He checked the validity of the available data
– He employed a clean, modern style
– And he reflected on the quality of visualisations

The full article version of the talk is published in the Malofiej 22 book, available through the SND-E bookstore.

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