Courtesy of a couple of tweets from @psychemedia and @simonjbains two items about data and data visualisation caught my attention today on twitter.  Firstly a great post by Pete Warden ‘What the Sumerians can teach us about data’ on his PeteSearch blog and secondly Harvard’s Library Innovation Laboratory.   Both items covering particular aspects of data, one talking about the history of data, the other a great set of examples of how to use and visualise data, in Harvard’s case library circulation data using the LibraryCloud library metadata repository.

A history of data
I found the blog post on the Sumerians to be particularly interesting.   The starting point is the contention that their greatest achievement was the invention of data and there are some good examples of how the written language was used to record who owned what (or who owed what to whom).  I like the comparison made between the ‘threats of supernatural retribribution’  being used to protect the integrity of the data with modern warnings over video copying, both being ‘ways of forcefully expressing society’s norms, rather than a credible threat of punishment’

It find it interesting how often we seem to find that early examples of writing often turn out to be lists, in other words data rather than stories.  Another example that comes to mind are the Vindolanda tablets.  These are from the Roman period and found during excavations at a roman fort in Northern England.

“… for dining pair(s) of blankets … paenulae, white (?) … from an outfit: paenulae … and a laena and a (?) … for dining loose robe(s) … under-paenula(e) … vests … from Tranquillus
under-paenula(e) … [[from Tranquillus]]
from Brocchus tunics … half-belted (?) … tunics for dining (?) … (Back, 2nd hand?) … branches (?), number … a vase …
with a handle rings with stones (?) …”
Writing lists of things seems to have been a recurrent story and it strikes me that being able to list and count things must have been an early skill that would have to have been mastered by early farmers at least.  To my mind there’s no reason to suppose that early peoples would have been any less intelligent than modern day people.  And as the archaeologists are fond of pointing out ‘absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ so there’s no reason to suppose that people weren’t collecting lists of data long before the Sumerians maybe?

I also thought the comments making a comparion between instructions for interpreting omens and predicting the future from data to be really interesting.  A great deal is often made of the importance of ‘facts and data’ and it has long seemed to me that the critical factor isn’t the data that you have, but how you interpret it and what decisions you make.  And it often seems to me that the interpretation of data and decision making is a much less scientific exercise.

Part two covering the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory to follow in the next blog post.