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The Joy Of Stats: The Lady With A Data Visualisation

Updated Tuesday 7th December 2010

 Famous for her lamp, it was the light shed by Florence Nightingale's statistics that really saved lives in great numbers.

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Hans Rosling: Statisticians use shapes to reveal the patterns in the data. But we also use images of all kinds to communicate statistics to a wider public, because if the story in the numbers is told by a beautiful and clever image then everyone understands. Of the pioneers of statistical graphics, my favourite is Florence Nightingale.

Eileen Magnello: There are not many people who realise that actually she was known as a passionate statistician and not just the ‘Lady of the Lamp’. She said that to understand God’s thoughts we must study statistics, for these were the measure of his purpose. Statistics was for her a religious duty and moral imperative.

When Florence was nine years old she started collecting data. Her data was different. Fruits and vegetables, she found, putting them into different tables, trying to organise them in some standard form, and so we have one of Nightingale’s first statistic tables at the age of nine.

Hans Rosling: In the mid-1850s, Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea to care for British casualties of war. She was horrified by what she discovered. For all the soldiers being blown to bits on the battlefield there were many, many more soldiers dying from diseases they caught in the Army’s filthy hospitals. So Florence Nightingale began counting the dead. For two years, she recorded mortality data in meticulous detail. When the war was over she persuaded the government to set up a Royal Commission of Enquiry and gathered her data in a devastating report.

What has cemented her place in the statistical history books are the graphics she used, and one in particular, the Polar Area Graph. For each month of the war, a huge blue wedge represented the soldiers who had died from preventable diseases. The much smaller red wedges were deaths from wounds and the black wedges deaths from accidents and other causes. Nightingale’s graphics were so clear they were impossible to ignore.

David Spiegelhalter: The usual thing around Florence Nightingale’s time was just to produce tables and tables of figures - absolutely tedious stuff that unless you’re a dedicated statistician it’s really quite difficult to spot the patterns quite naturally. But visualisations, they tell a story. They tell a story immediately and the use of colour and the use of shape can really tell a powerful story. And nowadays of course we can make things move as well, Florence Nightingale would have loved to have played with. She would have produced wonderful animations, I’m absolutely certain of it.

Hans Rosling: Today, 150 years on, Nightingale’s graphics are rightly regarded as a classic. They sparked a revolution in healthcare and hygiene in hospitals worldwide which saved innumerable lives, far more than her nursing work as ‘Lady of the Lamp’ in the Crimea could ever have done.

To find out more about the Joy of Stats visit the Open University’s OpenLearn website.

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