by Amber Lin
Here’s a lady who represents the spirit and spunk of International Women’s Day. Florence Nightingale.
Yes, the mother of modern nursing – but, did you know that Florence Nightingale was a data nerd? Yes she was. Here’s the story. Let’s start with the bullet points.
- Florence’s parents didn’t want her to be a nurse, they wanted her to be a socialite. Back then, being a socialite was a way of survival for women. To give it the time context, Florence was born seven years after Pride and Prejudice was published.
Let’s just call her Flo (cause she flowed).
- Picture this: it was the Crimean War when Flo arrived at the hospital in what is now Turkey, The hospital was a stinky dark cesspool.
- Raised rich and sent to this sewer-ish hell hole with stale putrid air that smelled like death because people were dying in droves. She felt helpless that she couldn’t save more of them.
- She thought were dying because they were overworked, lacked good nutrition, breathed stale air, because the supplies sucked in the hospital.
- Knowing something had to be done about the shear number dying men, Flo went back to England and appealed to Queen Victoria to do something about it, and the Queen created The Royal Commission on the Health of the Army. e came to believe that most of the soldiers at the hospital were killed by poor living conditions
- Flo worked to gather evidence and to chronicle the dying, eventually producing a 830-page report about it. However, she didn’t think that was enough, so she turned to statistics.
- At the time, Medical statistics was a growing field (it was Big Data of the 1850). William Farr, one of the founders of Medical Statistics as it exists today reviewed her work and told her, “We do not want impressions, we want facts.” He taught her how to collect tables and statistics, and she did so diligently.
- She became a data nerd, working with her fellow nurses and the Royal Commissioner Physician and his wife to collect data.
- The data of course, changed her understanding of the problems in Turkey. We now know that that 2,755 British Soldier were killed in action, 2,019 died of wounds, and roughly 16,000 died of disease (typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery). Whoa what!? 16000 died of disease?
Here’s where Flo rocked it.
Thinking that Queen Victoria’s eyes would glaze over at reading something so long, Flo started experimenting by present data in chart format. Her mentor, Farr didn’t agree with her. “You complain that your report would be dry,” he wrote to her. “The dryer [sic] the better. Statistics should be the dryest [sic] of all reading.”
But look at him. Now look at my girl Flo’s picture now back at William Farr.
Maybe it was true for William Farr, to be so easily taken at face value, and to speak with authority on the driest numbers, but they were the 1850s. It was a hard knock life for women.
Here’s what I know about being a woman. We have to do a lot more convincing to be taken seriously and we often have to know two times more to be though of as half as smart. There are always people who assume that you don’t know anything, and people always giving you advice.
Back to Flo, I am glad that she didn’t listen to him. She had the sense to trust her instincts and to empathize with her audience.
My Web Analyst mind is tickled by this because she had the sense to understand something about data, which is this: Does your audience want data, or do they want Insights? What is the best way to provide it?
Florence painstakingly set out to make data understandable. She ignored William Farr went ahead to create a version of a pie chart that she called a Coxcomb. That’s right she visualized the data by hand! She didn’t even have Excel, Tableau, or Data Studio to help her with it. Behold. True badass-ery for the 1850s. Here it is.
Science.org explains the Coxcomb. Each month here is represented like a clock in a two year period.
Months with more deaths are shown with longer wedges, so that the area of each wedge represents the number of deaths in that month from wounds, disease or other causes. Can you see how, for the first part of the war, the blue/grey wedges (representing disease) are far larger than the red ones (wounds) or the black ones (other causes). Brilliant right? This picture tells more than the 830-page report that she wrote.
Here’s a modern depiction at understandinguncertainty.org. I’d recommend that you check out the animation that they did.
If you study the visualization you’ll see that the blue wedges (indicating people dying of disease) became dramatically smaller from February 1855 to March 1885. Almost immediately, the mortality rate dropped from 52 percent to 20 percent. Crazy right? The last wedge in the chart in March 1886 shows disease from death as a tiny fraction of where death from disease .
So what happened? What changed?
The answer is that in March 1855’s Britain sent a Sanitary Commission they flushed the sewers, removed animal carcasses infecting the water supply, replaced rotten floors and improved the ventilation in the place and voila! Living soldiers dying less from disease and their wounds as well. She tested out her theories, looked at them with data. Eventually the data told a story about Sanitation practices. It wasn’t crappy food, and supplies.
Her report and the commission had an enormous impact, leading to changes in the design and practices of hospitals. She saved many lives. She made nursing a respected career and, by the end of the century, Army mortality was lower than civilian mortality. Not bad right?
So there you have it. That was how Florence Nightingale was a data nerd and a data visualization pioneer. Hooray for the Lady with the Lamp!
Here’s one parting thought for you today. Florence Nightingale is why you wash your hands today, friends. That’s the power of one woman armed with data.
So I celebrate Florence Nightingale for International Women’s Day!
Collect your Data, Hypothesize, Test and Measure, don’t listen to people who tell you that you’re instincts to share your data in an accessible way. A picture with a bit of narrative can say so much more than the numbers can.