Business Brains

120 years of annual report themes, visually mapped

120 years of annual report themes, visually mapped

Posting in Design

An interactive map of key terms used in GE's annual reports from 1892 to today trace trends in the economy, US and the world as a whole.

GE has posted an interactive visual map of keywords and terms used within its annual reports, from the years 1892 through 2011.

A great tool for understanding GE's priorities over the years, of course. But GE observes that not only does the interactive map -- capturing text from a total of 6,000 pages -- provide clues to GE's own  history, "but it is a true reflection of how the economy, US and the world as a whole has progressed from 1892 until 2011. By diving deep into key terms, users can uncover interesting stories about innovation over the last century."

For example, the term "manufacturing" is sprinkled fairly evenly across the 120-year diagram. "Digital" first appears in the 1950s, but is fairly sparse until the 1990s, when it really lights up the map. "Solar" pops up through the 1970s, disappears for a couple of decades, then re-surfaces in the most recent decade.

The map's creators, Fathom Information Design, describe some of the trends revealed. "The reports directly address national and world events—economic depressions, world wars, the space race, energy crises—and the challenges they brought to the company, its investors, and its consumers," Fathom notes. For example, reports from 1915 and 1944 mention GE’s production of war goods at the request of the government.... “Technology” was commonly used beginning in the 1960s, and the first mention of “Innovation” in 1949 pertains to the clock radio. The term "innovation" appears often, especially in chairman’s reports, from the 1980s on, Fathom adds.

Source: GE and Fathom Information Design

The layout depicts all 5,480 pages of reports in a single display. The 1892 report, just 18 pages long, is seen on the left, while the newly released 2011 report weighs in at 146 pages on the right. (Interactive map accessible here.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure