Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Information visualization and the Battle of the Atlantic

I've been reading Churchill's 6-volume history of WWII. Fascinating reading if you're into this kind of stuff. Some scattered thoughts on history, war, and information:

WWII was arguably the first war fought through information as much as weaponry. One of Neal Stephenson's characters in Cryptonomicon has a great monologue on this point. He claims that Nazi Germany typifies the values of Ares (you know, the Greek god of war), and the U.S./U.K. typify the values of Athena. In this telling, WWII Germany had an advantage in guns and regimentation, but the proto-hacker cryptographers of Bletchley Park, etc. ran rings around them with information. I recommend the monologue, but not the whole book.

This comes out in Churchill's narrative. Exhibit A is a set of FlowingData-esque maps of merchant ships sunk by U-boats throughout the war.

A little background: in the middle part of the war (once France had been defeated, but before Russia and the U.S. had entered) the "Battle of the Atlantic" was probably the single most important "front" in the war. As long as England was connected to her colonies by convoys of merchant ships, she could continue to fight. If bombing and U-boat action could constrict this flow of trade sufficiently, the little island would have no chance.

Exhibit A: (scanned on the cheap with my pocket digital camera)

Charts like these make it clear that Churchill was interacting on wartime data on a day-to-day basis, and that that flow of information was crucial to war effort. Churchill likes to attribute success to the bulldog-like grit and willpower of the British people, but it's clear from his narrative that the flow of information was at least as important. In war, grit doesn't matter much without gunpowder.

In addition to maps, Churchill gives statistics and monthly trends for various gains and losses in shipping. They remind me of post-game trend plots in Starcraft II. The general tension between military and economy is the same. They also remind me of the dashboards that are all the rage in business process management these days. 50 years ago, you had to be a superpower at war to devote these kinds of resources to information gathering. Now, any reasonable-sized business has them. Heck, even this blog is hooked up to sitemeter. Map of the world, populated with little dots? Check.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi.I am currently doing a module on information visualisation and I have been reading around Graphical Inference. I have only managed to get my hands on "Graphical Inference for Infovis" and it is hardly sufficient to guide me into the related subjects that I should look into. So I was wondering if you would know the sort of topic that I should read into to gain a better understanding of graphical inference. Could you please respond back to . Thank you in advance.