Visualizing Telecommunications Inequality


Using historical data to bring the long history of information inequality to life.

The raw material

In the last couple of years, the International Telecommunications Union has undertaken a vast digitization project of their archives in Geneva. One of the things the ITU’s archivists have uploaded are scans of historical data that the ITU collected between the years of 1865 and 1973.

These charts are a treasure trove. They reveal, in stunning detail, the steady growth of international communications networks for the first 100 years of their expansion.

They include not only the number of kilometers of above-ground and submarine cables, the number and type of radio transmitters, but even the number of telegrams sent and received in each nation and colony.

Here’s what they look like.

These data sets hold tremendous potential to yield incredible insights.

But there are just a few issues.

First: the language can be inaccessible for researchers who either don’t speak French, or who are not familiar with some of the more technical details of historical telecom technologies, and what these labels mean.


Second: values expressed in these tables were constantly changing. They were published every year between 1865 and 1963— a century during which national and colonial borders were perpetually shifting, and telecom technologies were evolving rapidly.

That means that some kinds of longitudinal analyses are either difficult or impossible, because the data values (whether national borders or rates of telegraph traffic) weren’t measured the same way over time.


Third: the data is a little spotty. Not every country submitted data for every year. (Very few countries in the Western Hemisphere submitted data at all, for example.) And sometimes it’s unclear whether a null value indicates that the country just didn’t submit data, or if the value should be zero (two very different things!)

Drawing on insights from my own research, I’ve started to digitize these spreadsheets, clean the data, and make them publicly accessible.

With these data sets, anyone will be able to create their own visualizations to explore the growth of global communications networks for their first 100 years.

Let’s take a look!



Here, for example, is a sample chart from the year 1934.

It concerns all the countries considered to be part of the “European network”— mostly states on the European continent.

It shows the proportion of telegraphs sent and received from countries within the European network and with countries beyond the European network.

This graph reveals a number of things.

First, it shows quite clearly that in the 1930s Great Britain was the world’s undisputed telecommunications hegemon. It also shows that Great Britain was somewhat unique among European powers, in that the number of telegraphs it sent and received outside of Europe was almost equal to the number of telegraphs it send and received within Europe.

This makes a fair degree of sense, since Great Britain had the largest of the world’s colonial empires, and was in constant communication with colonies in its far-flung empire beyond Europe.

Countries like Czechoslovakia, Ireland, or Finland, which had no colonial empires of their own, had comparatively much smaller rates of traffic with countries outside of Europe.

It can also show us exceptions. Turkey, for example, was the only country in the “European” network that sent more telegraphs outside of Europe than to countries inside Europe. Its rates of communications traffic reveal Turkey’s particular orientation toward the broader world, beyond Europe.

We can also get a close-up look at specific countries and colonies.

Here, for example, are charts that show the proportion of telegraphs sent within particular countries and colonies.

They show the proportion of telegraphs sent, telegraphs received, and transit telegraphs between other countries on the same continent, between the given country and Europe, and between the given country and all other continents.

These kinds of graphs can show us how particular countries fit within the broader global network:

for example, how different countries’ communications were oriented toward Europe versus countries on the same continent.

These pie charts show us, for example, that in 1934, Argentina’s traffic exchanged with Europe was almost equal to its traffic with other countries within South America. This suggests that Argentina was well-connected with its neighboring countries.


In Palestine, by contrast, almost a third of the telegraphs passed through its domestic network were transit telegraphs, suggesting that Palestine’s telecom infrastructure was used more as a connection, or a node in the global network, rather than as a destination. Also, 56% telegraph traffic with and between Palestine was oriented toward Europe, and only 16% oriented toward other countries within the Middle East.

A sample map of the volume of international telegraph traffic per country & colony (based on available data) in 1934.

See & explore the data for yourself.

In this publicly-available GoogleDrive.

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© 2021 Sarah Nelson