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Modern data visualization and business intelligence has its roots in the very ancient organization methods of information itself. One of the earliest forms of organization was simply drawing lines in the dirt or sand. This gave way to using beans or stones moved around in grooves in the dirt/sand and eventually on stone or wooden boards. This became what we now know as the abacus between 2700–2300 BC with the Sumerians. The abacus was then adopted by cultures all around the Mediterranean. As written languages developed and matured there became written records of information regarding a variety of fields such as commerce, taxation, the sciences, etc. This information remained as written text however. There was no easy way to see trends or outliers in the data collected.

Data visualization really took off in the 18th century when William Playfair, a Scottish engineer & political economist, brought the intellectual enthusiasm of the Enlightenment to data. Playfair went on to invent the line, bar, pie, and circle charts. Other notable visualizations followed such as Dr. John Snow's 1854 dot distribution map of cholera cases in London, Florence Nightingale's polar area diagram visualizing mortality rates in the field hospitals she managed during the Crimean war, and Charles Minard's 1869 flow map of Napoleon's failed Russian campaign of 1812.

Fast forward to the 1950s when IBM researcher Hans Peter Luhn coined the term "business intelligence" in his 1958 paper A Business Intelligence System. His work laid the groundwork for modern information sciences. What we largely recognize as modern BI really developed over the years beginning in the 1960s right up through the 1980s. Statistician Francis Anscombe helped demonstrate the value of data visualization in his 1973 Anscombe's quartet which is a series of four datasets with nearly identical properties but look very different when visualized. He was making the point that relying solely on a table of values wasn't enough to fully understand the data. Visualizing the data was crucial to seeing trends and outliers.

Our modern tools for Business Intelligence have never been more powerful. The challenge of taking action on your data though is largely the same today as it was thousands of years ago. Businesses and individuals are increasingly looking for ways to not only see their data but understand it in ways unimaginable to our ancestors drawing lines in the sand.