Tree diagrams as important tool in human approach to big data

Big data may seem like a recent phenomenon but for centuries tree diagrams have helped people make sense of new influxes of data:

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge catalogs a stunning diversity of illustrations and graphics that rely on arboreal models for representing information. It’s a visual metaphor that’s found across cultures throughout history–a data viz tool that has outlived empires and endured huge upheavals in the arts and sciences…

For the first several hundred years at least, the use of the tree metaphor is largely literal. A graphic from 1552 classifies parts of the Code of Justinian–a hugely important collection of a thousand years of Roman legal thought–as a trunk with a dense tangle of leafless branches. An illustration from Liber Floridus, one of the best-known encyclopedias from the Middle Ages, lays out virtues as fronds of a palm. In the early going, classifying philosophical knowledge and delineating the moral world were frequent use cases. In nearly every case, foliage abounds…

At some point in the 18th or 19th century, the tree model made the leap to abstraction. This led to much more sophisticated visuals, including complex organization charts and dense genealogies. One especially influential example arrived with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, in 1859…

While the impulse to visualize is more alive today than ever, our increasingly technological society may be outgrowing this enduring representational model. “Trees are facing this paradigm shift,” Lima says. “The tree, as a representational hierarchy, cannot accommodate things like the web and Wikipedia–things with linkage. The network is replacing the tree as the new visual metaphor.” In fact, the idea to do a collection solely on trees was born during Lima’s research on his first book–a collection of visualizations based on the staggering complexity of networks.

A few quick thoughts:

1. We talk a lot now about being in a visual age (why can’t audio clips go viral?) yet humans have a long history of utilizing visuals to help them understand the world.

2. We’ve seen big leaps forward in data dissemination in the past – think the invention of writing, the printing press, the telegraph, etc. The leap forward to the Internet may seem quite monumental but such shifts have been tackled before.

3. Designing infographics took skill in the past just as it does today. The tree is a widely understood symbol that lends itself to certain kinds of data. Throw in some color and flair and it can work well. Yet, it can also be done poorly and detract from its ability to convey information quickly.