To understand the way to a better world through development, data visualization rock star Hans Rosling urges top players to invite more statisticians to the dance floor.

By Ragan Sutterfield, World Ark contributor
illustration By Jackie Besteman

The Don of Disco Data
Hans Rosling brings development data to life in his TED talks, which have been translated into 47 languages.

Hans Rosling is many things — a doctor, a statistician, a sword swallower, a performance artist — but he is most of all a man of facts, a conductor of data. In the data he finds a kind of hope, but it is hope that can be quantified.

Call the Swedish professor of public health an optimist, and he will correct you. He prefers to be called a “possibilist.” Rosling sees the problem and the solution in the numbers, and his hope comes through their analysis.

“[Tracking development work] is like walking in a fog,” Rosling explained. “You don’t know how far you have come toward the peak you are [working] to climb, but when it’s clear you can suddenly see, ‘oh, we’ve already reached to here.’” That’s what he shows us through data visualization, “the way it is,” absent emotional labels.

For instance, if you look at his “200 Years That Changed the World” visualization, “the way it is” goes well beyond the old categories of “developed” and “developing” countries. “If you divide the world that way, then the developing world contains 6 billion of the 7 billion people in the world,” Rosling said.

The intro to this chart notes, “200 years ago, all countries were poor and life expectancy was less than 40 years.” Yet hit play, and watch how specific regions of the world, highlighted in color-coded bubbles on axes of life expectancy and income per person, begin to bob and weave and gradually rise from their grim beginnings in the 1800s. Finally, in 2011, not one country measured here has a life expectancy of less than 40 years.

Countries often labeled as “developing” are as varied as Brazil, which is a major lender to the United States, and Somalia, where most people are malnourished. It makes no sense to lump those two countries together, Rosling points out. It is dismantling those simple dichotomies and old ideas that led him to develop an innovative way of displaying dry statistics, not on simple bar graphs or tables, but as moving animations. These tools are best viewed and most beautiful in their animated form, but snapshots in time are also useful in tracking trends (see Mapping the Wealth and Health of Nations chart below).

Rosling said his visualizations “started and continue with trying to explain the world,” so that people can put their resources into solving its most real and dire problems. As a professor of public health, he was frustrated that so much time was spent by his students just to find the data that they no longer had time to invest to make the data useful. “Why not give them the data and make it so that they can spend their time thinking about it?” Rosling said.

The Don of Disco Data
Hans Rosling demonstrates his showmanship by swallowing a sword during a TED talk.

It was that motivation that led him on a quest to show the state of the world in an understandable way that didn’t diminish its complexity. It was Rosling’s son Ola who made his father’s stunning use of the facts possible. Ola Rosling dropped out of university and spent what his father said was “70 hours a week for seven years” to create Trendalyzer, a software tool that can be loaded with any kind of data and create stunning animations. The software is freely available to all, acquired by Google in 2006 from Rosling’s Gapminder Foundation and made a part of Google’s free Public Data Explorer.

Rosling may be data visualization’s rock star, but it’s a growing field, with computer scientists and statisticians specializing in unique ways to show us the numbers. There are more than 50 data visualization software programs available, many of them open source and freely available like Trendalyzer and Google Public Data Explorer.

Communicators, especially journalists, have joined the data visualization revolution by working to show hard-to-understand statistics in striking and understandable ways. The British newspaper The Guardian has a whole department dedicated to data visualization. The world Bank, too, is using the tools of visualization to help the public understand progress toward the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals, which the U.N. uses to measure the most important areas where the world needs to make progress—areas like poverty, malnutrition, education, maternal health and gender equity.

Tariq Khokhar, open data evangelist at the World Bank, said there is now “a range of easy-to-use tools that can produce useful, elegant and interactive visualizations of statistics.”

Few have communicated the data so well - and to so many - as Rosling. A supreme example is Rosling’s 2006 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) talk “Stats That Reshape Your Worldview,” a 20-minute presentation that brought Rosling to the attention of many around the world. The talk has been viewed more than 5 million times online and has been translated into 47 languages.

Speaking in his heavy Swedish accent, Rosling says it was while teaching students about global health that he realized the biggest problem he faced was “not ignorance; it was preconceived ideas.” His students believed that the western world was characterized by low birth rates and long lives, whereas the “Third World” was not. What Rosling did next was astounding.

The Don of Disco Data
This graph from Hans Rosling's Gapminder.org shows by country how long people live and how much money they earn (click to download pdf).

Using Trendalyzer, he took the available data and showed how that reality has changed from 1962 to 2004. That preconception about birth rates and mortality was plain wrong, and the world is in fact showing real progress. The facts themselves are surprising enough. What is more remarkable is the clarity with which he communicates the data.

Rosling’s showmanship extends beyond academia and development, as you can see in the sword - swallowing segment of one of his Ted talks.

Visualizing the data as it relates to specific targets like the Millennium Development Goals shows clear evidence that the international development work of many organizations has been effective. Improvements from 2005-2010 are a hopeful sign.

However, as the World Bank’s Khokhar said, “The [Millennium Development Goals] also showed us ... that we often don’t have the data to measure progress in key areas of development.” For instance, malnutrition can be a hard thing to measure using standards like Body Mass Index. Children who are malnourished can be fine according to BMI, but their height can be stunted. As development agencies work to understand the extent of malnutrition, they are trying new methods such as measuring wrist circumference to more accurately identify malnutrition.

Rosling is even more pointed in his criticism of the data gaps. “The whole Millennium Development process has not led to any new data collection,” he said.

To visualize the data, you have to have it, he said. If we want a view of the complexities of the world, we need more data collection. For instance, one of the Millennium development goals is to improve maternal health, yet in many countries women who die in childbirth are not assisted by a qualified professional and the deaths are never recorded. If we want to achieve improved maternal health, then we must work to improve data collection around maternal mortality, Rosling said.

In his annual Foundation letter for 2013, Bill Gates made the case for making such measurements at the core of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work. “Setting clear goals and finding measures that will mark progress toward them can improve the human condition,” Gates wrote. Gates points specifically to Rosling’s work, even quoting Rosling via Twitter: “we must measure how countries are progressing. only by measuring can we cross the river of myths.”

What impresses Rosling about the Gates Foundation’s work is its patient, analytical approach. “They are not in a hurry because they don’t have to be re-elected,” Rosling said. Instead, they are working carefully and meticulously to close the data gaps that have been hindering the achievement of the Millennium development goals.

For example, the Gates Foundation funded a 10 - year grant that will enable the Gallup organization to collect data on the financial transactions of the poor and provide it to the world Bank, where it will be freely available to other organizations. The Gates Foundation is funding similar projects in agriculture and public health and hopes to add more data collection-focused projects in the coming years.

For Rosling, the greatest obstacle toward achieving those goals is not money, but understanding. There is a picture of Rosling on the Gapminder website, with only his head and shoulders showing above water. He is wading through his “river of myths” — a river that is both deep and wide. To build a stronger bridge of data, Rosling said that collection has to go deeper than the national levels.

We have to be able to see region by region, village by village what is happening in terms of infant mortality, birth rate, women’s education, etc., he said. For those who want to change the world, he said the task is to “speak to what we really know.”

We must work to better the lives of the world’s very poor, but first we must understand the reality of who they are. What is the cause of their poverty? How much progress are we making? Do we start with helping countries become wealthy or does health come first?

Rosling is making the facts clear so all can see the form of possible solutions and progress take shape. In its beauty and simplicity, it’s hard not find hope there.