In December, I posted Hans Rosling’s Joy of Stats video in which Rosling “tells the story of the world in 200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers – in just four minutes.”
The video is a terrific example of combining statistics, data visualization and story telling to simplify the delivery, and therefore absorption, of an important, data rich message.
This afternoon, as I was flipping through the latest Economist Technology Quarterly, I ran across the perfect addendum to the Joy of Stats video. An article on Rosling’s work entitled Making Data Dance.
The piece starts by describing Rosling’s primary work:
“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.””
Then moves to his embrace of infographics:
“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.””
Next, the article uncovers a bit of the how:
“With the help of his son and daughter-in-law, Dr Rosling then developed Trendalyzer software (now called Gapminder) to animate the bubbles.
“It was a conscious intent to make the data look alive,” he explains. “My son invented the trails, like patterns in the snow, so you can see how countries have changed. And we could overlay countries historically so that it’s clear that, for example, China today is like Sweden in 1948 and people in Vietnam now have the same life expectancy as Americans did in 1985. Every country has a graphical path that describes its development.””
And (news to me), Gapminder software is available via Google, as Google Motion Chart:
“The software was a hit, first with his classes in Sweden, then worldwide after a video of his 2006 TED lecture was posted online. Dr Rosling was soon helping Al Gore polish up his climate-change presentations and talking about Gapminder with the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. “I could see in their eyes how excited they were, how my software fitted with their ideas about making organised information generally available,” he recalls. “We started collaborating and quickly reached the conclusion that it was more rational that Google acquire our technology and the team behind it.” Within a year Google had bought Gapminder, and a version of the bubble-graph software is now available free online under the name Google Motion Chart.”
Lastly, the article describes the very real problem of making data public, and Rosling’s work to “become the Robin Hood for free data”.
Check out the full article.
If you create any interesting visualizations with Google Motion Chart, please do share.