Data journalism in the time of cholera
Some of the most famous infographics — John Snow’s Broad Street Pump (1854) and Florence Nightingale’s rose diagram (1858) — have been born out of the need to save lives in times of disease. Neither of these however could be considered data journalism. Infographic historian Scott Klein has unearthed a fascinating chart published in The New York Daily Tribune, on 29 September, 1849, showing the rise and fall of cholera. What’s amazing about it is that it would have been the first time most of the readers would have seen anything like it, so it needed a 300-word explanation.
He also notes how much work and money would have gone in to creating such a graph.
“Illustrations and line art had to be carved by hand into small wooden blocks. Bigger illustrations were made by bolting several blocks together (if you look at the cholera chart closely, you can see some of the seams between the blocks). The process was laborious and hard to pull off on the daily deadline of a newspaper. It took great skill and there were only a handful of craftsmen who could do the work. Few if any newspapers had on-staff engravers, so it’s likely the Tribune would have had to bring in somebody with rare skills who could command a high fee.” (He makes it sound as bad as trying to put a custom D3.js graph into a CMS.)
The graph eerily foreshadows the Flatten the Curve graph we’re seeing during the current Coronavirus outbreak. (You can read my history of that particular graph here.)
“…We stand on the shoulders of the people who toiled over maps and charts like our cholera chart, with imperfect data, on deadline, for newspapers.”Scott Klein, ProPublica