Hans Rosling, Data Superhero

For many, data is a chore–the stuff of spreadsheets and long-forgotten stats lectures. For Hans Rosling, data is the quickest way to change the world. Rosling is a professor of global health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and his work with data has made him an international superstar.

Rosling first captured the public eye with a TEDTalk he gave in 2006 on trends in global health and poverty. With over 4 million views the lecture has become one of the most widely viewed since TED started posting talks online. In his 19-minute speech, Rosling tackles misconceptions about the existence of a “developed” and a “developing” world:

I asked [my students], “What do you really think about the world?” And they said, “The world is still ‘we’ and ‘them.’ And we is Western world and them is Third World.” “And what do you mean with Western world?” I said. “Well, that’s long life and small family, and Third World is short life and large family.”

Using 40 years of data from the United Nations, Rosling goes on to demonstrate that this worldview is outdated. Life expectancy in the Third World has been growing almost constantly since the 1960s just as family size has been decreasing.

Rosling’s tone is half-sportscaster, half-excited child. One gets the sense that even the dullest dataset could become engaging in his hands; however, the true magic in Rosling’s talk comes from the visualisations that accompany his data.

The program is called Gapminder, after the famous London Underground notice to “mind the gap,” and it signals a change in how the average citizen understands the data that builds their world. Gapminder was developed by Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund in 2005 to develop a software known as Trendalyzer. The main goal of Trendalyzer is “to unveil the beauty of statistical time series by converting boring numbers into enjoyable, animated and interactive graphics,” says the Gapminder website. In its most recent iteration, Trendalyzer has been available to the public under the name Gapminder World since 2006.

Gapminder World takes the form of an animated bubble chart. Countries are plotted as bubbles along two axes, with the size and color of each bubble corresponding to two additional parameters. Over 200 parameters for over about 200 countries can be assigned to the axes and bubbles. As stills, Gapminder charts outdo most infographics in both clarity and data density, but Gapminder’s true strength comes from its animations.

When parameters are animated, we can see trends evolve through time. In one of Rosling’s more famous presentations, he uses Gapminder to show how life expectancy and income have changed worldwide since 1800. Initially, the countries are in a dense cluster near the bottom left–low income, low life expectancy. As he narrates, points move up and down on the chart, representing wars and famines while income increases slowly but steadily. By 1900, Europe and North America have made great strides while much of the rest of the world has been fairly stagnant. During the 1940s, almost every nation on the chart is rapidly increasing in life expectancy. At the end of 1990s, the countries on the chart have separated into two distinct groups: Sub-Saharan Africa and Everyone Else. Across the globe, income and life expectancy have increased, with only Africa lagging behind.

Presentations like this helped solidify Rosling’s fame. Two hundred years of global health and economic history are distilled into a five minute presentation accessible to anyone. Even without a clear grasp of world history, the trends are immediately clear.

Rosling has not always been so enamored with data. Originally trained as a doctor, Rosling discovered a paralytic disease which he dubbed konzo while working in Mozambique from 1979-81. He spent the next twenty years researching the disease in rural Africa eventually tracing its causes back to a combination of poverty, hunger, and toxic cassava roots. His work eventually led him to found a Swedish chapter of Doctors Without Borders and write a textbook on global health.

Since his breakout success at TED six years ago Rosling has given several more talks and become a celebrity in the global health field. His work with Gapminder has also made hime one of the most recognizable figures in the world of data visualization. Rosling starred in an hour-long documentary produced for BBC in 2010 called “The Joy Of Stats.” The documentary presents Rosling’s own work and that of other leaders in the movement to use statistics in new ways, including an application to help San Francisco police track crime.

Rosling has set his sights on making data more open and accesible and promoting what he calls a “fact-based world view.” While he still uses Gapminder to spread his ideas, it is far from his only medium. Found objects such as IKEA Crates, a washing machine, and leftover cardboard boxes have all turned into powerful tools of explanation and visualization. In a video that first appeared earlier this week, Rosling uses nothing but rocks to illustrate population growth.

Rosling is unique in the visualization community in that he has near-universal acclaim. Steven Few, one of the fathers of modern data visualization, has described him as “an engaging and powerful teller of quantitative stories.” London based graphic artist and visualization designer David McCandless refers to Rosling as “the master” of his field. TIME recently named him one of the 100 Most Influential People In The World.

What makes Rosling so successful is the energy he brings to his data. With every talk he gives it is inherent how much he loves what he does and cares deeply about the issues. Rosling is witty, informative, and exciting all at once. His lectures captivate an audience in a way that few other speakers can even come close to. Even impromptu talks or casual interviews gather a crowd when Rosling is involved.

Rosling is a true data celebrity and it’s easy to see why. As he says himself, “I kid you not, statistics is now the sexiest subject on the planet.”


Gapminder Foundation
Hans Rosling: Global Health Expert; Data Visionary
Hans Rosling on Blogger
The Joy Of Stats

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