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Crossing Population’s ‘River of Myths’ with Hans Rosling
by Nalaka Gunawardene
October 17, 2015
Dr Hans Rosling, image courtesy YouTube
Dr Hans Rosling, image courtesy YouTube

[NOTE: World Statistics Day is observed on October 20. This year’s theme emphasizes the role of high quality official statistical information in informed policy and decision making for sustainable development.]

Our world is awash in data and numbers. Digital technologies enable us to gather and process data more than ever before. But how can we make sense of their sheer volume and diversity?

Never fear. Just listen to Hans Rosling, in whose hands data comes to life. He is arguably the best-known popularizer of statistics in the world today.

The Swedish medical doctor and statistician breaks down complex figures and datasets into simple chunks that are easy to understand. Communicating the right data in the right manner is his forte.

He ‘connects the dots’ to help us see the bigger picture of international development where, unnoticed by most news media, considerable progress has been made.

He uses a combination of animated graphics and equally animated presentations to remind us – with evidence – that the world is slowly but surely getting a better place.

Until recently, Hans Rosling was a Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden (which awards Nobel Prizes in Medicine). But it is his other role – as founder of the non-profit educational charity Gapminder Foundation – that he plays ‘statistics guru’ to the world.

He draws all his data from publicly available sources, mostly the UN Statistics Division that regularly collates national level statistics from governments. Then he works his magic.

Hans Rosling in Don't Panic - BBC documentary made in 2013
Hans Rosling in Don’t Panic – BBC documentary made in 2013

To visualize numbers and trends, he uses Lego bricks, IKEA boxes as well as a presentation tool called Gapminder. With these, he cleverly debunks various myths about the state of our world – economic development, disparities and how well (or poorly) we share our planet’s resources.

He calls it ‘crossing the river of myths’.

It is the combination of his visualizations and speaking style that makes him such an effective communicator.

I once listened to him at an international science writers’ conference in Helsinki, Finland, in the summer of 2013. He filled an entire conference hall (400+ seats) at 8 in the morning – the only time he was free to give his talk.

With the drama a sportscaster and passion of a social activist, he took us through two centuries of demographic and economics data. By the end of an hour, he had shown how off the mark many of us are in our perceptions about the world.

He busted some misconceptions that influence development and humanitarian policies. It certainly was both a mind opening and mind stretching experience for me.

Rosling now travels the world, talking to audiences ranging from politicians and bankers to academic and journalists. He is sought after by the World Bank and World Economic Forum, among many others.

He likes to ask his audiences: Will saving poor children lead to overpopulation? He then explains a common misunderstanding about development: only is this assertion not right, in fact it is the other way around!

In a recent video, shared online, he tracks the progress in reducing poverty in the world during the last 250 years. This is to see if eradicating global poverty in a single generation – as announced at the recent Sustainable Development Summit in New York – is attainable.

 

Here is Rosling’s keynote speech at UNICEF’s Data for Children Forum on 15 September 2015:

 

And in an hour-long documentary first broadcast by BBC TV in November 2013, Rosling takes us through the history of demographic data, demystifying numbers and reassuring those worried about population growth.

Aptly titled DON’T PANIC: The Facts About Population, he shows – with evidence and analysis, as always – that “the world might not be as bad as you might believe!”

 

“I’m not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist,” Rosling likes to say. “It’s a new category where we take emotion apart and we just work analytically with the world.”

Rosling began his wide-ranging career as a physician, spending many years in rural Africa tracking a rare paralytic disease (which he named konzo) and discovering its cause: hunger and badly processed cassava. His research has also focused on other links between economic development, agriculture, poverty and health. He has been health adviser to WHO, UNICEF and several aid agencies.

Gapminder website: demystifying data for everyone
Gapminder website: demystifying data for everyone

I caught up with him just after his Helsinki talk. He told me that he once visited Sri Lanka in the early 1970s, when he spent time at a university in Bangalore as a masters degree student in public health.

“Sri Lanka is a remarkable country that has done very well (in human development) even when it was a low income country,” he told me. “It defies the stereotype, which is why the country interests many development researchers.”

Let’s hope this ‘magician of data’ would consider a return visit to Sri Lanka one of these days. Plenty has changed since his last visit!

Useful links:

The Economist profile of Hans Rosling: Making Data Dance. 2010

TED Talks introduction to Hans Rosling

The Daily Telegraph (UK) profile of Hans Rosling: November 2013

Gapminder Foundation website

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