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There are early examples of the important role data visualization played in shaping social change starting with the first published bar graph, created by William Playfair in 1786 for an atlas on Scottish trade. In Soho London in 1854, John Snow's map of houses where individuals had been hit by cholera played a key role in data visualization, helping determine that it was foul water — not bad air, as some presumed — that caused cholera. By the 1950s, data visualization was common enough in American newspapers that at least one — the New York Times — felt comfortable enough with data viz as a common vernacular to put together a compilation of graphs that we today would refer to as a dashboard. 

I’d argue, however, that data visualization hasn’t transformed greatly since these milestones. Yes, nowadays we’re regularly churning out beautiful data interactives that would make William Playfair’s head spin. But on a more fundamental level, is data visualization being used in the social sector as a tool to educate and persuade? Are the maps and graphs we create truly raising awareness of issues, informing policy decisions, and empowering communities?

On that score, I think the record is a bit more spotty. In essence, we’ve learned over the years that communicating with data is no easy task; you can’t just create a simple graph and put it on auto-pilot to do your bidding. There are, however, some important trends taking place these days to help make a real-world impact through data visualization that we can point to and collectively learn from. Read the full article on Medium's Towards Data Science channel.

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