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What Focus leaflets owe to Florence Nightingale

If you wanted to find a historical model for the best kind of political activist and campaigner you couldn’t do much better than to look at the career of Florence Nightingale.

If you go beyond the “lady with the lamp” myth making you will find the story of a highly determined and principled woman who used her fame, her connections, her research skills, her understanding of statistics, and the forcefulness of her personality to shape public opinion and change government policy. In fact she used skills and techniques that would be very familiar to any modern lobbyist or public affairs professional. As a result she not only transformed the British Army, but founded the modern profession of nursing and as a result is responsible for saving thousands, if not millions, of lives.

I was reminded of this by a brilliant programme in the BBC documentary series “The Beauty of Diagrams”.

The programme is still available to watch on iPlayer and I would recommend anyone interested in political and other forms of campaigning to watch it.

This tells the story of how Florence Nightingale was a pioneer in the visual presentation of information and the use of graphics as tools in political campaigning. The programme is centered around her famous rose diagram that she designed to dramatically demonstrate how significant disease was as the cause of death amongst British soldiers in the Crimean War as opposed to other factors, and so persuade the government that lives could be saved with better sanitation in hospitals. No one before her had used this kind of diagram, a kind of pie chart that you can see below, in such a way.

The use of a diagram to make a political argument in this way was highly unusual at the time. Just one of the ways that Nightingale was innovative. But it is something that we, well Liberal Democrat activists at least, are much more familiar with today.

If you have ever included a bar chart on a Focus leaflet in an attempt to make clear and visual the concept that “so and so can’t win here”, although you probably didn’t know it, you have been directly following in Florence Nightingale’s footsteps.

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