Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The traditional style of these maps and graphs engage the eye in a way most contemporary visualizations don’t.
CityLab loves the U.S. Census Bureau’s 19th-century statistical atlases. We’ve fawned over them not once, but three times before. The colorful windows into Gilded-Age America engage the eye in a way that most contemporary data visualizations—manifesting, as they do, a post-war design mantra of simplicity above all—just don’t.
Since those golden years, the Bureau’s atlas production has been largely stagnant. But that hasn’t stopped data artists from getting inspired by the classics. Nathan Yau, a California-based statistician specializing in data visualization and creator of FlowingData, released yesterday a remarkable set of maps and graphs that apply 19th-century visual (and linguistic) style to the newest government data he could find.
Yau says he was frustrated that there weren’t any plans for new atlases from the Census Bureau, despite the unparalleled access to data their maps provide.
“At an individual level, it’s good to know about where you live,” he tells CityLab in an email. “It helps you make better decisions in the day-to-day and provides a sense of perspective for how others live. And the data is available for anyone to work with, but not many people want to look at spreadsheets and data files.”
But Yau was willing to do the work—and he did it quickly. In just three weeks, he produced visualizations of contemporary data on areas including land use, mortality rates, ancestry, and the country’s perilous fiscal reality. And these visualizations are just the beginning: Yau hints on his website that he plans to tackle more subgroups and subpopulations in the future.
It’s not just for fun. It’s for posterity.
“Looking back at old atlases, you get a sense of what was significant then—the crops people grew, what the government spent money on, how people died, and how people worked,” he writes. “It’ll be interesting to look back on this revised atlas a century from now. I hope.”
For more maps and information on Yau’s work, check out the FlowingData website. And for even more old-is-new-again data-viz delight, take a look at Jim Vallandingham’s interactive reproduction of a classic 19th-century population bump-chart.