A Profoundly Moving Data Display, Revisited

Perhaps you’ve visited this memorial. There are more than 58,000 names engraved on panels of polished black granite commemorating the Americans who died or were listed as Missing in Action in the war. The 250-foot long walls are each ten feet tall at their apex and gradually slope down to ground level. Viewers see their own reflections in the stone as they read the names inscribed there.

The obvious (and perhaps most neutral) way to list the names would have been alphabetically by last name. Instead, designer Maya Ying Lin chose to list them chronologically by date of death (or day reported missing).

Ordering the soldiers by date of death serves to place them near one another as they may have fallen on the battlefield. It helps other soldiers who served at the same time remember those whose deaths occurred during their own tour of duty. It encourages visitors to contemplate the sacrifice of each soldier, and to wonder at the connection of other visitors to the memorial.

The simple, beautiful, and brilliant design of this memorial is really something quite extraordinary in its dignified and engaging presentation of seemingly straightforward information — the names of soldiers.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a profound example of meaningful data visualization, and of the importance of design in communicating the message in our statistics. Alphabetically, the names are just that — data. When listed chronologically, as here, the same information tells a deeply moving story.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial gets it exactly right on all levels. It weaves a narrative that draws viewers in, connecting them to one another, and both leading and permitting them to reflect on their feelings about the war. It is a prism through which memories of and thoughts on our most controversial and divisive conflict may forever change as it re-molds the most firmly held beliefs — raising awareness, suggesting answers, perhaps stimulating new questions. It can even inspire action, changing what people do in the voting booth, in their career choices, in their communities or as volunteers.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial sets the bar pretty high for the rest of us, and that is a good thing, because in doing so, it reminds us that even in our day-to-day work of reporting healthcare data, the way we do that really matters.

It matters because we need people to pay attention to important information, and to engage with it — to change how they think and work because of what we have shown them. Data presentation (on black stone or white board) matters because the only way we can affect our systems of care is to be moved to action by what the presentation reveals — to action that will make those systems, and the people they serve, better.

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