What Hans Rosling Can Teach You About Data Visualization

A true innovator in the field, his work will continue to inspire millions


Swedish academic and medical doctor Hans Rosling’s death at the age of 68 is a massive loss, not just to the world of data, but to society as a whole. His work correcting misconceptions around population growth and poverty indirectly helped to change millions of lives for the better, while his innovation with data visualization was an inspiration to anyone looking to translate data insights into action.

Dr Rosling believed passionately that there was mass ‘global ignorance’ about the reality of the world, which he said ‘has never been less bad’, and saw facts as the means with which to prove it. Most famously, he went after an idea popularized by Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University in California, that the world was heading towards mass starvation owing to overpopulation. Rosling used data to show that, rather, the opposite is true. Rates of child survival have actually increased over time, yet family size has gone down.

His work with data visualization to demonstrate his world view is unparalleled. In 2007, he left his role as a professor of global health at Sweden's Karolinska Institute to focus on his website, Gapminder, which he co-founded with his son and daughter-in-law. Gapminder lets users create and explore their own data visualisations, with data taken from the archives of the OECD, the World Bank, and the United Nations. He also presented a number of highly popular TED Talks, using visualizations to persuade a mass audiences of the veracity of insights he had uncovered through statistical research on a variety of topics, including poverty, global warming, and HIV. His 2006 Ted Talk, ‘The best stats you've ever seen’ debunked a number of myths about the developing world. It has now been viewed more than 11 million times. Time magazine even included him in its 2012 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, noting that his ‘stunning renderings of the numbers … have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways.’

Rosling is one of the few true innovators in the field of data visualization, and there are a number of lessons he can offer to everyone from NGOs to businesses. Most importantly, he understood the importance of entertaining the audience and telling a story with data. He sought to dispel the myth that data and information are inherently boring, once saying that, ’Having the data is not enough, I have to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand.’ To do this, he used a variety of props - lego bricks, cardboard boxes, teacups - alongside his vibrant, animated data visualizations. In a talk titled ‘New insights on Poverty’, which demonstrated that countries like those in Sub-Saharan Africa have actually done far better than others if you take into account the obstacles they had to overcome, he ended by swallowing a steel bayonet just to prove that the impossible is possible.

It was not just by entertaining the audience that Rosling was able to hold their attention, though. He also understood that the audience needed to be prepped before revealing the actual visualization to them so they knew what to look for. He explains the horizontal and vertical axes. He then explains the starting point and gives context before going on to show you what has happened. Most people make the mistake of unveiling all of their data visualization at once — without offering any direction about what to look for or explaining the variables. They then move straight on to their own conclusion leaving the audience bewildered and lacking any understanding of how it was reached. This is a particularly pertinent lesson for business users looking to get decision makers on board with their insights. It is not enough just to wave a pretty graph at them and tell them what it says, you need to know how the data got you there.

Rosling was not one to blindly follow data over a cliff edge though, and often expressed scepticism about its limitations, particularly around data quality. For example, different countries measure some things in different ways, meaning that there are real discrepancies that must be assessed before you try and draw any conclusions. In an interview with the Guardian, he argued that: ’That unit [at the World Bank] which assists countries, trains the staff, and helps them to compile [poverty] data, how many persons are working there? Four half-time. For the world. It's a joke. They're very competent, they're very good. But it's not serious … The uncertainty of 1.3 billion [people living in poverty] is plus or minus half a billion. And we will not know whether the MDGs [millennium development goals] have been achieved until 2019, the later part. We only get poverty measurements every fifth year.’

Rosling's death was announced on Gapminder with a message that read: ‘Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!’ Rosling showed the power of data to do good. For businesses, his lectures are a tour de force in how to do data visualization. For society, in a world where truth is becoming little more than an amusing diversion for the powerful, his belief that facts were everything, that we used ‘too much Word, not enough Excel’, is more important now than ever.

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