A Brief and Inspiring History of Data Visualization in Korea

Did you know that Saturn’s rings will disappear in March 2025? They will gradually come back into view as the planet tilts, but it’s strangely exciting to imagine a ringless Saturn. However, this is not the first time humans have observed this: Saturn was first seen by Galileo Galilei through a telescope in 1610 and he was also the first person to witness the rings disappearing and reappearing. “I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for and so novel,” he wrote in 1612. The rings were, in fact, edge-on from Earth’s perspective. Galileo became the first person to observe a Saturn ring plane crossing.

If you had asked me six months ago if I cared about this, I would have said no. But I became enchanted by Galileo’s drawing of Saturn in Edward Tufte’s book Envisioning Information with the words, “Saturn, a drawing, a word, a noun. The wonderful becomes familiar and the familiar wonderful.” Then later, when attending a one-day course where Tufte was presenting, I saw his eyes fill with excitement as he walked around the room holding the first edition of Galileo’s book with the Saturn drawing. It was impossible to forget.

One person’s genuine enthusiasm about data can be infectious and have a lasting impact. Tufte’s books were filled with visualizations from all over the world, inspiring me to also collect charming data visualizations and share them with others. Or as author Austin Kleon would say, “Steal like an artist.” I wanted to find my “Saturn” and these were the six discoveries I found in the ongoing process.

Kangnido is the oldest world map in Korea and one of the oldest from East Asia
One of the Oldest Surviving World Maps from East Asia – Kangnido (1402). Source: Retrieved from the National Atlas of Korea.

Honil gangni yeokdae gukdo jido, also known as Kangnido, is the oldest world map in Korea with 130 places named across Europe, Africa, and Asia. The map is titled “Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals” with capital cities written in a smaller font size beneath. At the bottom of the map, the purpose of the map is written: “The world is very wide… It is difficult to outline every information in a few letters, so the map is brief… The saying ‘You can know the world without even leaving the door’ refers to this map as its completeness is orderly and pleasing to the eye. Most importantly, understanding geography through maps and books would be exceptionally helpful in governing a country.”

What’s notable about this map is how enormous both China and Korea look. Sinocentrism — or the view that China is the cultural, political, and economic center of the world — did not evade Korean cartographers who drew China in the center with major cities of the Yuan Dynasty (a Mongol-led imperial dynasty of China) marked in red. While China covers almost half of the map, Korea takes up the majority of the right corner as the second most important nation. According to the University of Richmond, “This and later Japanese world maps suggest that East Asian kingdoms placed themselves second to China in geographic importance depending on how much influence they had in the creation of the map (Sung). This difference shows how mapping is solely a proposition of how certain groups of people see the world rather than maps being representations of pure spatial data.”

The Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate was made by Yi Hwang, a prominent Neo-Confucian scholar
The Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate (1568). Source: Retrieved from The Academy of Korean Studies.

The second visualization was created by Yi Hwang, also known as T’oegye. If you ever visit Korea, his portrait is seen on a 1,000 won bill as he is regarded as one of the most honored thinkers of Korean Neo-Confucianism. His book The Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning was completed in 1568 and presented to the young 17-year-old King Seonjo of Joseon Dynasty to guide him in the Confucian way of an honorable kingship (London Korean Links). The diagram above is the first out of ten lessons prepared by 68-year-old T’oegye, explaining the metaphysical concept of Taeguk; it denotes the harmony between the negative cosmic forces (yin) and the positive cosmic forces (yang). The five layers of circles explains the stages of energy as it transforms from the “supreme ultimate (Taeguk)” to “yin and yang” to “union of yin yang leading to five phases of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth” to “formation of male and female” to “reinterpretation of Taeguk.”

According to Michael C. Kalton, the first Westerner to receive the prize from the International T’oegyehak Study Institute, the visualization concludes, “All things evolve and are produced by transformations of form. Each thing has its own nature but all are the one Supreme Ultimate.” This was and still is one of the most fundamental concepts in Korea, as seen in the national flag.

Korea’s first line chart was published in 1936.
Korea’s First Line Chart (1936). Source: Retrieved from SBS Data Journalism. Image original source: Naver News Library.
Korea’s first bar chart was published in 1936.
Korea’s First Bar Chart (1936). Source: Retrieved from SBS Data Journalism. Image original source: Naver News Library.

Korea’s first line chart was published by the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper on January 1, 1936. What’s notable about this visualization is the x-axis: Instead of years, numbers 5 to 9 are listed. Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and the traditional Japanese calendar was based on the reign period of the emperor. For example, Shōwa 5 meant year 5 of the reign of Emperor Shōwa or 1930. Therefore we can interpret the x-axis as 1930-1934. The main message was to show the divergence between the Japanese and British textile industry performance as seen by the positive trend line labeled as Japan and the dotted downward line for Great Britain with the United States’ drawn in between. 

The grouped bar chart is equally interesting. It outlines five countries’ import and export performance, with the y-axis consisting of five countries further divided by years between Shōwa 4 to 9 (1929-1934) and the x-axis divided into two: the left side depicting export levels and the right side outlining import levels. What’s peculiar about this chart is that the year 1929 is used as a metric of comparison for the following years so every country begins with both export and import levels of 100 in 1929. Japan on top shows a quick bounce back after two years of decrease while the rest of the chart draws a gloomier economic outlook with no recovery.

The main message for both line and bar charts published on Dong-a Ilbo in 1936 was to highlight Japan’s economic boom in comparison to other countries’ struggling status quo.

“Let the Truck Drivers Rest” was an article awarded 2023 Best Data Journalism.
2023 Korea Data Journalism Awarded data visualization article – SISA In’s “Let the Truck Drivers Rest.” Source: Retrieved from SISA In.

For the 6th annual Korea Data Journalism Award in 2023, an interactive website and article titled “Let the Truck Drivers Rest” won the Data Visualization of the Year award. Prior to the publication, reporters tracked 59,296 trucks’ data for a month in April 2022 and surveyed 25,000 truck drivers. In this particular visualization, they accompanied and recorded one truck driver’s daily routine for 24 hours. Yellow color is for active driving time and black is for when the driver stops the truck. The line chart on the left is the geographic footprint whereas the stacked bar chart on the right side is the timestamp of each geographic location. The driver spends nine hours driving and 12 hours loading/unloading packages at hubs. 

The main message of this illustration is that the truck driver only had one hour to sleep (parked at a highway rest stop) out of the 24 hours and ate only once, at 10pm. Sleep deprived truck drivers are at risk of fatal car crashes but the driver shares that there’s little choice: He gets paid based on the deliveries so he often ends the day with $45 after costs, which is below the minimum wage standards. If he takes a rest, he will make even lower profit.

Data Squirrel is a Korean YouTube channel with more than 61 million global views.
Data Visualization YouTube Channel with More Than 61 Million Views. Source: Retrieved from Data Squirrel, YouTube.

Last but not least, @DataSquirrel is a YouTube channel that has posted data visualization videos since 2019. In total, more than 61 million views and 143,000+ channel subscribers have been accumulated. 15 videos generated more than 1 million views with the most popular video being “Korean Celebrities’ YouTube Channels Subscriber Ranking Change (2017-2020)” with 3.3 million views. From ranking of mukbang YouTubers’ subscribers to the number of convenience stores in South Korea by brands, DataSquirrel is filled with interesting topics. But who knew a data visualization YouTube channel would be popular?


“If the data is boring, then you have the wrong data.” Described by The New York Times as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Data,” Edward Tufte inspired me to express and share my enthusiasm with others. Nicknamed “The Land Of the Morning Calm,” Korea is a country filled with wonders and as I continue to learn about data visualization, I want to compile and translate works in hopes that the global audience sees what I feel with my heart.

Jiwon Kim headshot
Jiwon Kim

Jiwon Kim is a growth marketer who previously worked with Microsoft and Samsung Display at Drizzlin Media; she also served as a Volunteer Board Member for marketing at Girls in Tech Korea. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Business Analytics at Bentley University as a Fulbright student and Google’s Women Techmakers Ambassador.