When you think about it, data visualization has been around for a long, long time. While we didn’t get things like bar graphs and pie charts until the 18th century (for better or for worse) when you think about it some of the smartest people on the planet have been trying to visualize information in ways that make things easier to understand for centuries.

Early maps of the stars and astronomical charts and constellations? Those can definitely be counted as data visualization- people looked up into the sky, saw patterns, and then copied those patterns down on paper for others to follow.

Or consider the age of exploration- what was one of the first things the explorers who started sailing around the world discovering new continents did? They made maps of their travels for others to follow: data visualization at its finest.

If you take the broad view of data visualization then maps and the patterns we found within them must certainly be some of our earliest, and most visually impressive, attempts to present information in a way that anyone can understand.

Patterns in the stars

There’s something magical about looking up at the night sky and seeing all of those stars. Our ancestors looked up at the sky and saw not only something beautiful, but useful and imaginative. They used the stars to navigate across oceans and even told stories about the patterns they found in countless dots of light.

We think our ancestors would be proud of this first visualization- an interactive guide to the constellations in your sky, right now.

star data visualization
even though I can’t see it, Leo is right above me

We love this visualization for its interactivity, simplicity and and how geographically specific it is. Anyone can look at a star chart, but there are very few people who understand it. Believe us, in preparing for this article we looked at dozens of constellation maps and each one was more confusing than the last. Talk about vast data sets: the data set for constellations is literally every visible star in the night sky!

What this visualization does is effectively filter out the noise so you can see just the patterns you want to see: the constellations. It’s beautifully simple. Just click on your current location and you can see just those patterns that apply to you specifically. Within moments you’ve filtered through an enormous data set and gained insight into something that would have taken you hours to possibly figure out: what constellations are overhead right now? And that is what good data visualization is supposed to do: provide fast insight that gives you answers to your questions!

Patterns on the ground

Consider this: our ancestors looked to the stars and found patterns in the sky. But one of the marvels of the modern world is the fact that we’ve sent satellites up into space and only a few are looking out at the sky- most of them are looking back at us and snapping absolutely enormous pictures!

But that doesn’t mean our talent for finding patterns in what we see has changed: we’ve just created machines that do the spotting for us!

Take this amazing data visualization called Terrapattern. Using satellite photos this amazing program actually lets you pick out a random piece of landscape and will, through machine learning, find similar visual patterns elsewhere in the city.

map data visualization
See? We’ve found all the parking lots in Miami

The accuracy of this program is absolutely astounding. The city we chose to explore was Miami (being close to our Florida home) and just zoomed in on the first residential-type area we could find. The parking lot caught our eye so we clicked on it and within seconds Terrapattern found similar visual patterns throughout the city and had an interactive list of other parking lots.

Think about the sheer amount of visual data that this website had to process in such a short amount of time to give us this curated list of all the parking lots in one of the largest cities in Florida. It’s a true testament to the visual power of patterns and their use in data visualization- they are the world’s fastest and most intuitive filter!

Until next time,

The VisualCrew