Hans Rosling and Gapminder: Unraveling the Joy of Stats!

Hans Rosling: Information Wizard

If you thought Al Gore was a data-happy geek, you should see Hans Rosling in action.

The Swedish medical researcher has a way with numbers. He brings heavy and dreary statistics into life using a combination of animated graphics and equally animated presentations. With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, he uses a new presentation tool called Gapminder to debunk various myths about world – economic development, disparities and how well (or poorly) we share our planet’s resources.

Hans Rosling is Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet (which awards the Nobel Prize in medicine), but it’s his other role – as Director of the Gapminder Foundation – that he plays ‘statistics guru’ to the whole world. If you’re perplexed by lots of numbers, he’s the man who can make sense of it all.

In some ways, Rosling and Gapminder present in live action – and on video – what the Atlas of the Real World attempted to do in 2D maps: show the world as it is, with little or no distortion or misconceptions. That effort, published in late 2008, uses software to depict the nations of the world, not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance on a range of subjects.

I’ve watched a number of Rosling talks on video online. He makes no attempt to conceal his Scandinavian accent, and his English grammar is not always perfect. But it doesn’t matter: the guy has such mastery over his ideas and statistics, and a great stage presence too. He’s profound and funny at the same time, without being condescending that most experts and especially professors are.

Here’s an example of Rosling at his best: recorded in February 2006 in Monterrey, California:

No more boring data: TEDTalks

Rosling’s quest to use numbers to shatter stereotypes of rich and poor countries has brought him global prominence. He was one of the world’s “100 most important global thinkers” of 2009, according to Foreign Policy Magazine.

Look, no magic here!

Rosling was honored at #96 on the list for “boggling our minds with paradigm-shattering data“. The list is topped by (1) Ben Bernanke, the chairman of US Federal Reserve for his actions to turn the US depression and (2) President Barack Obama for “for reimagining America’s role in the world.”

Foreign Policy noted: “Rosling is well known for his energetic lectures, in which he narrates mind-blowing statistics on development and public health — as they literally move across a screen. Imagine x-y axes filled with data points, each representing a country. As time passes, the dots move, realigning to show changes in child mortality, percentage of paved roads, unemployment rates, or pretty much any other metric you can imagine.”

Here are some more examples of Rosling magic:

200 years that changed the world (with Hans Rosling)

For the first time, Gapminder can now visualize change in life expectancy and income per person over the last two centuries. In this Gapminder video, Hans Rosling shows you how all the countries of the world have developed since 1809 – 200 years ago.

Hans Rosling on HIV: New facts and stunning data visuals

Hans Rosling unveils new data visuals that untangle the complex risk factors of one of the world’s deadliest (and most misunderstood) diseases: HIV. He argues that preventing transmissions — not drug treatments — is the key to ending the epidemic.

Hans Rosling: Asia’s rise — how and when

This is one of the funniest Rosling talks I’ve watched online so far. Speaking at TEDIndia in November 2009, Rosling recalled how he was a young guest student in India when he first realized that Asia had all the capacities to reclaim its place as the world’s dominant economic force. He graphs global economic growth since 1858 and predicts the exact date that India and China will outstrip the US.

Rosling and Gapminder developed the Trendalyzer software that converts international statistics into moving, interactive and enjoyable graphics. The aim is to promote a fact-based world view through increased use and understanding of freely accessible public statistics. His lectures using Gapminder graphics to visualise world development have won awards by being humorous yet deadly serious. The interactive animations are freely available from the Foundation’s website. In March 2007 Google acquired the Trendalyzer software with the intention to scale it up and make it freely available for public statistics. Google has since made available as Motion Chart, a Google Gadget.

Who speaks for most of the world’s poor people…living in Asia?

World map of human poverty...shows Asia harbouring over half

World map of human poverty...shows Asia harbouring over half

Take a close look at this map. What’s happened to our familiar world?

This is the map of human poverty — showing the proportion of poor people living in each country.

The size of each country/territory shows the overall level of poverty, quantified as the population of the territory multiplied by the Human Poverty Index. The index is used by the UNDP to measure the level of poverty in different territories. It attempts to capture all elements of poverty, such as life expectancy and adult literacy.

This map is from the recently released new book, Atlas of the Real World. It uses software to depict the nations of the world, not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance on a range of subjects.

It carries maps constructed to represent data, such as population, migration and economics. But instead of a conventional map being coloured in different shades, for instance, the maps in this Atlas are differently sized. For instance, a country with twice as many people as another is shown twice the size; a country three times as rich as another is three times the size. And so on.

When depicted in this manner, a very different view of our real world emerges. The one on the distribution of poverty, shown above, reminds us something often overlooked: there are more poor people in Asia than anywhere else in the world.

It takes a map like this to drive home such a basic fact. In most discussions on international development or poverty reduction, it is Africa that dominates the agenda. Even those organisations and activists who claim to be evidence-based don’t always realise that when it comes to absolute numbers, and not just percentages, poverty and under-development affects far more Asians than Africans.

Atlas of the Real World, which I haven’t yet seen except through glimpses offered by The Telegraph (UK) and BBC Online, offers many such insights on what our topsy-turvey world is really like.

Their map of human poverty draws on the same data that this standard depiction does, in a map I found on Wikipedia sourcing the UN Human Development Report 2007/2008.


Percentage population living on less than 1 dollar day 2007-2008 (Source: UN)

There are many ways of measuring income poverty, and experts don’t always agree on methods and outcome. But we will leave those technicalities to them. Global Issues is a good website that discusses these issues without too much jargon.

Accurately drawing a two-dimensional map of our spherical world has been a challenge for centuries. Today’s most widely used Mercator projection represents our usual view of the world – with north at the top and Europe at the centre. People in other parts of the world may not always agree with this view.

The Peters Projection World Map is one of the most stimulating, and controversial, images of the world. Introduced in the early 1970s, it was an attempt to correct many imbalances and distortions in the Mercator map.

An example: in the traditional Mercator map, Greenland and China look to be the same size but in reality, China is almost 4 times larger! Peters map shows the two countries in their relative sizes.

Atlas of the Real World also carries one map where the size of each territory represents exactly its land area in proportion to that of the others, giving a strikingly different perspective from the Mercator projection most commonly used. It is very similar to the Peters map of the world.

Our world depicted by each country's land area

Our world depicted by each country's land area

The UNDP has been producing its influential Human Development Report since 1990. As far as I can discern, the HDR always uses conventional (Mercator?) maps, depicting data using the standard colour-coding or gray tones. The one I have reproduced in this post is an example.
Indeed, the UN’s Cartographic Section seems to favour these.

When would the UNDP – and other members of the UN family – start using more innovative ways such as those used in Atlas of the Real World? How much more effective can the UN’s analysis be if they move out of the comfort zone of Mercator?