Minard’s march – a hallmark visualization, rightly so?
Martin had some substantial criticism of Minard’s graphic. Maybe, graphic is the crucial word here: A part of Martin’s and my discussion was about the (too?) subtle geographic contextualisation the map provides. While Minard labels his work as “(une) carte” (French for map), Edward Tufte‘s famous quote on the topic says that Minard’s depiction “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn” (emphasis mine). Telling? Or not?
In any case, Martin has followed up on our discussion and provided some links to interesting discussions around, and resources about, Minard’s map (Thanks!). I will list these here and encourage you to check them out:
- Minard was an engineer. “Virtually all of his maps were published privately, and made their way into the public domain haphazardly.”: Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861
- (Martin:) “Before he depicted Napoleon’s army, he made Hannibal’s: with a much more map-like depiction.”
- Revisions of Minard’s map.
- “Additional options to tell the story (…) rely[ing] on the sophistication of PowerPoint as a production tool” (I think the author is not being sarcastic): Gene Zelazny responds to Tufte on the famous Minard graphic. I don’t like the proposed options.
- Cruel Pies: The Inhumanity of Technical Illustrations, by Sam Dragga and Dan Voss, contains this memorably paragraph about Minard: “
Nowhere in this visual display is
the slightest indication that the subject being illustrated represents the slow dying of 412,000 human beings. (…). We don’t see the people, and we don’t see their anguish.”
The human dimension
Now, especially Dragga and Voss (in the last bullet point) raise an interesting concern with Minard’s and similar depictions: the elegant abstraction that opens the information to relatively easy appreciation also removes, in the opinion of the authors, (too much of) the human angle to the story, namely the tragic loss of lives.
The authors suggest two potential remedies: use of pictographs and overlay of statistical graphs on photos of human subjects. The reworked Minard map in Figure 7 does not work well for me (bad alignment of, and not ideal choice of type and scale of pictographs) – but: I can relate to and do sympathise with the need for ethics in data visualization. As unusual and ornamental (in a bad sense) some of the proposed graphic additions may seem, they may, at the same time, augment memorability (but that’s opening a whole new can of worms).
Text [from ‘texere’: to weave]
Throughout the discussion between Martin and me I kept thinking about the text that goes with Minard’s map. To me (German-speaking Swiss, but still, Swiss: thus, you know, expected to speak some French, too), consuming the text (at least the title) came quite naturally as part of looking at the depiction. The two, map and text, seemed interwoven. To Martin this was different and we agreed that it might have caused part of the differences in our opinions.
Abstracting from the discussions about the actual language used in such annotations, what can the merit of such text be? Can it too help to build the ethical dimension of visualizations? Many will probably argue that an image is much more powerful than words, but still, I am not ready to give up the idea that through accompanying powerful text we can bring humanity into visualizations.
Given his thoughtful treatment of language and cartography in Maps and Prose, I’d wish Martin would tackle this topic at some point.
Finally, and coming back to the Minard map, it turns out that there is an open MSc project with Arzu Çöltekin at the University of Zurich Geovisualization and Analysis lab centred on both Minard’s map of Napoleon’s march and John Snow’s Cholera map. If you’re as curious about the (overestimated? rightly lauded?) effectiveness of these visualizations as me, why not make use of this unique opportunity to scrutinise these hallmarks of geographical visualization using latest technologies such as eye-tracking.
In any case, I’m looking forward to further research into Minard’s and similarly widely distributed and cherished visualizations.