Making Data Dance
“The biggest myth is that if we save all the poor kids, we will destroy the planet,” says Hans Rosling, a doctor and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “But you can't stop population growth by letting poor children die.” He has the computerised graphs to prove it: colourful visuals with circles that swarm, swell and shrink like living creatures.
For the past four years Dr Rosling's mesmerising graphics have been impressing audiences on the international lecture circuit, from the TED conferences to the World Economic Forum at Davos. Instead of bar charts and histograms, Dr Rosling uses Lego bricks, IKEA boxes and data-visualisation software developed by his Gapminder Foundation to transform reams of economic and public-health data into gripping stories. His aim is ambitious. “I produce a road map for the modern world,” he says. “Where people want to drive is up to them. But I have the idea that if they have a proper road map and know what the global realities are, they'll make better decisions.”
The realities that Dr Rosling is trying to highlight have been gleaned from decades of studying statistics. They sound simple enough: that it no longer makes sense to consider the world as divided between developing and industrialised countries; and that people everywhere respond similarly to increasing levels of wealth and health, with higher material aspirations and smaller families. “There is no such thing as a ‘we' and a ‘they', with a gap in between,” Dr Rosling says. “The majority of people are living in the middle—although the distance from the very poorest to very richest is wider than ever.” The best measure of political stability of a country, he believes, is whether fertility rates are falling, because that indicates that women are being educated and basic health services are being provided. “The only way to reach sustainable population levels is to improve public health,” he says. “Child survival is the new green.”
Communicating these realities to students in his international-development classes at Uppsala University proved problematic, however. “I used to make huge photocopied sheets of Unicef statistics for the students on income, life expectancy and fertility rates around the planet. But it didn't change their world view, it didn't create another mindset. They still insisted that we were different, that all the Chinese cannot all have a car,” says Dr Rosling. He needed a new way to present his conclusions—a way to turn dusty figures into convincing illustrations.
Innovation in infographics has always been driven by the need to explain difficult things, Dr Rosling points out. “Florence Nightingale is known as a nurse, but she also made a new kind of pie chart showing how many soldiers in the Crimean war died from military action and how many from disease.” Nightingale's famous “coxcomb” chart from 1858 demonstrated that improving hygiene in British military hospitals slashed mortality rates. She said its design was intended “to affect thro' the eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof ears.”
In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings, global trends in health and economics come to vivid life, and the big picture of global development snaps into sharp focus.
Gapminder is a non-profit venture – a modern “museum” on the Internet – promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
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