How Data Visualization Makes You An Optimist, Explained by Anna Rosling

Lessons on digging the right data, presenting information digitally and making sense of the world, by people behind Gapminder Foundation

Originally posted at

A few weeks ago Philips hosted a very nice infographics/data visualisation event here at in Eindhoven, NL. Among many speakers there was Anna Rosling, who is known for her work with Gapminder Foundation, a non-profit aiming to provide better insights to public data through visualisations. You probably have seen Hans Rosling (Anna’s father in law) video from TED where he delivers publicly available information in a very fresh and intriguing way:

Hans Rosling on Ted

Anna shared her story and how Gapminder’s Trendalyzer became a part of Google for some time, as well as insights on working with data visualisations. Although most of the points sounded obvious, combined they certainly make an effect worth understanding and applying.

Google’s Public Data Visualization

Data Visualization Meets UI

Visualising digital information is in many ways different that static print visualisations. And as much as Anna loves Edward Tufte’s beautiful books, she notes that in many ways visualising data digitally should not be limited to the rules of static infographics. For example, here are a few key questions Anna asks herself when designing UIs dealing with data and presenting information:

  1. Does this interface tell me what I need to know right away?
  2. Is it easy to find information I’m looking for, or I have to browse a bit to find it?
  3. Can I use UI before reading any instructions?
  4. Are the things I can do on this screen obvious?
  5. Do I need to wait to get all the information or is it presented [seemingly] instantly?
  6. Are there any tedious repeatable tasks that I can somehow shortcut or remove?

Anna uses this questions as a checklist when examining existing or creating new interfaces.

The interface at may not look like sleek modern flat style, but the audience (mostly students and researchers, as well as just a curious crowd) with their tasks find it extremely useful to gather insights from public data.

The Rules of Thumb

Among other handy insights Anna shared common misconceptions vs. rules of thumb in digital data visualisation. Some moments that seemed most interesting and relevant to me:

  • Create the data you need, don’t just use the data you have. There are always ways to dig, find or arrange the data you need.
  • Learn from kids, not from the experts. Kids will have the most straight-out questions, reactions and insights, while experts in many cases might have a tunnel vision based on their knowledge domain.
  • Introduce complexity of your data stepwise, rather that put it all away at once. This makes users understand basic things before moving on to most complex, allowing them to catch up easily.
  • Data needs storytelling and rarely just speaks for itself — at least well enough to motivate and touch people.
  • People can’t read graphs. Although you think it’s no brainer and everyone can do it, usually most of them can not.

Future on The Dollar Street

A screenshot of Dollar Street app (currently only available for PCs)

Gapminder currently works with schools trying to provide students with relevant data-based insights and teach them to work with publicly available information. Some other projects include Dollar Street — a visual way to learn how exactly people live their everyday lives everywhere in the world, based on their monthly income. The idea is to show the life of people and emphasise how differently they perceive seemingly obvious routines and things, e.g. teeth cleaning or cooking on their kitchens. You'd be amazed what these activities look like in the average Ugandan household.

You might be also interested testing yourself with how much you know about the world with Gapminder’s Ignorance Test (ah, BBC, you could do better: the Start Test button is on the bottom right of the head image). Apparently, we know less about the world, on average, than what we think we know. And on average, by learning the correct answers people tend to think the world is not such a bad place after all — a valuable thing to know to move into the future.

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