I'm working on a project that looks at the nature of electronic data (bits/bytes, storage) and the exploding nature of data traffic on the internet from 1990 to projected 2016.

For one part of this project, I've developed an incrementing counter that compares data-traffic per second for the years 1990, 2000, 2010, 2013 and 2016. Quite interestingly, the scale of difference between the years has been absolutely mindblowing from a purely numerical perspective.

See below a purely mechanical representation of this data:

enter image description here

I'm struggling to settle on a dynamic visualisation that will illustrate this per-second data traffic of each year, whilst still providing the user of the full context of what they're seeing - for example, a vertical bar that you scroll down might work in theory, but in practice the 2016 forecast traffic is so much larger than 1990 that you would be scrolling down infinitely to see the bar's end, and completely lose sight of 1990's miniscule bar, and therefore lose comprehension of the scale itself.

Another related problem is the matter of infinity. We've realised that at some point the data will be so large at some point that it WILL break the display, unless it is purely numerical strings.


How could you visually compare values of massively different orders/sizes?

  • Well, when I was building the data handler I plugged the values into --essentially-- a bar chart, simply because it took about thirty seconds. That reaffirmed my suspicions that a to-scale 2D representation wouldn't work. I've also looked at representing MB as blocks that contribute to that year's 'cube', but building that out of JS/CSS is something I'd need to really think about. Other things I've thought of include an escalating scale of 1-10-100-1000-10000, though I'm not sure whether that genuinely puts across how mahoosive the numbers are... if I'm just using more large numbers. Oct 4, 2014 at 18:58
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    Have you taken a look at the way Randall Monroe handles it for his xkcd infographics? Take the radiation dosage chart for instance. Oct 4, 2014 at 20:09
  • @StanRogers Thanks for that, interesting as ever from xkcd. With alot of space to work with, and a single path of data, this'd probably be an alright solution, but I do feel that simply changing the appearance of dots to represent scale-change might be a bit of a cop-out. I've thought about representing data as hard-drive icons that fill up and add to a counter or something, but... That'd only work if there was something that multiple harddrives could 'turn into'. Hmm. I'll have to keep thinking. Oct 4, 2014 at 21:14
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    You could also do something like what the Scale of the Universe does, though not necessarily on scroll Oct 5, 2014 at 13:43
  • That's more or less the 1-10-100 (10^n) thing I mentioned. Hmm. That does really well illustrate the point... and it could be quite fun to build in CSS/HTML... if a tad challenging. More ideas to sketch, I suppose. Oct 5, 2014 at 15:48

1 Answer 1


I came across this old topic. Your project probably finished years ago, but I thought I'd add something in case it helps anyone else.

That xkcd chart came to my mind as well. In two dimensions those numbers scale up really quickly, but that's a really neat way of showing the changing scale.

If you add a third dimension though, i.e represent as a cubic volume rather than a square, and then represent the cube on screen as a 2D projection of a cube, then the scale effectively expands rather slower, and you can just about* respresent the range of volumes without changing the scale.

Here's what I came up with using those numbers and a bit of crude MSPaint drawing in conjunction with the scaling tool:

enter image description here

[*] The 1990 cube is about a third of a pixel across.

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