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Sciencing Out: What it Means to Make Information Tangible

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine numbers or get a sense of what they mean. How large is $1 billion? How heavy is 200 tons? Thankfully, there are experts whose job it is to make these numbers tangible, and help us visualize data so our brains understand numbers and figures better.

Publish Date: Topic: Body + BrainBody & BrainNova
By Ana Aceves and Reyhaneh Maktoufi

In this episode of Sciencing Out, host Reyhaneh Maktoufi introduces you to two of these experts—statistician and pioneer of modern nursing Florence Nightingale, and modern-day data journalist Mona Chalabi, who’s used her illustrations and graphics to visualize everything from how hairy you are to healthcare inequities.

Also known as the "Lady with the Lamp" during the Crimean War of the 1850s, Florence was dispatched to a hospital in Scutari where wounded British soldiers sought treatment. But many of the soldiers there, due to the unsanitary conditions in the hospital, died from illnesses—like typhus—unrelated to their battle wounds. Florence advocated for more cleaning supplies, which the British government eventually sent over. typhus

After the war, Florence wanted to prove that cleaner conditions lead to better health. So she gathered statistics from military hospitals near battlegrounds across Britain. Then she created a chart to help visualize the data—instead of simply reporting numbers. By correlating filth and poor health, Florence's research pushed Parliament to pass the Public Health Act of 1875, improving the overall life expectancy of English citizens.This was one of the first-known moments of data visualization influencing public policy.

Today, Mona uses her statistical knowledge in graphics to help people understand big concepts. "I really enjoyed making charts,” she told NOVA. “I would kind of obsess for hours over things like the font and the placement and the colors that I used. They stay in people's memories better, and they have greater impact.”

Mona has visualized and shared to social media many data sets, from topics related to animal extinction to police brutality, in her unique style—imperfect lines and easy-to-understand whole numbers.

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Funding provided in part through a grant for NOVA's Civic Science Fellow in Science Misinformation.

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