Data and how not to be ignorant about the world

Hans Rosling, unlikely storyteller that gave data a soul and a mission

By Jacqueline Koch, Boost! partner

Want to understand climate trends, ocean acidification, HIV and the global disease burden, economics or pandemics? Hardly a day goes by without a mention of big data and the promise it holds. Even for those us who are daunted — the volume, complex statistical formulas and the labyrinthine spreadsheets — can understand the essential role data plays in revealing the mysteries of the world we live in. And it’s for this reason the passing of Hans Rosling is such a tremendous loss.

Armed with stats and data Hans Rosling paints a broader world view.

Best known for transforming statistics and data into colorful, dancing bubbles choreographed seamlessly across a screen, Hans Rosling, Director, @Gapminder Foundation and Professor, Global Health, Karolinska Institutet, was a pioneer and unexpected storytelling master. Crunching numbers and assembling statistics, while expertly harnessing new techno-color data display technology, Rosling had a gift. And he deployed it for crafting a fantastic tale, complete with an engaging narrative arc to explain global issues such as child mortality, poverty, vaccines and income disparity. His passion for a “fact-based world view,” was matched by an off-beat sense of humor. Quirky meets convincing, he made us all fall in love with data and statistics, his bubbles and with Rosling himself.

Rosling didn’t consider himself optimist or a pessimist, but instead a “very serious possibilist.” Well known for a number of TED talks and featured in a BBC documentary for the “Joy of Stats,” Rosling created a considerable library of compelling videos. They were his megaphone.

In one TED talk he defends the washing machine as the game-changer in the industrial revolution. In another, game-show style, he and Bill Gates discuss childhood vaccines as the “demographic party trick.” Moving away from high-tech data display and bright bubbles on a screen, he managed to explain population growth using IKEA boxes. Creative and always wildly gesticulating, Rosling’s capacity to entertain — making numbers fun — was limitless. And while it may be a noble effort to try explain his videos, it’s not worth it. They generally fall into one category: “Just watch, you’ll see what I mean.”

When I saw my first Rosling video, I was hooked. It was in the midst of the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009. Hysteria, fanned by shrill media headlines, grew exponentially day by day. While only 31 people died of Swine Flu, more than 63,000 had died of TB during the same 13-day period. Guerilla style and with his laptop video web camera rolling, Rosling set red bubbles in motion, migrating across a globe. His goal: to open our eyes to both an unwarranted public health panic and recognize a far greater global health foe, TB. In the video, Rosling coined the term “news per death ratio” and chose an ironic title — “Swine Flu Alert” — to open our eyes to painful truths about our relationship with media. Watch it, you’ll see what I mean.

While Rosling was a nerdy and captivating storyteller, his bubble stories were anything but cursory. Consider his take on the worldwide advances in maternal and newborn health. In one global health summit, he explained how these issues are shaped by a plethora of converging factors: fertility rates, investments in vaccines, improved nutrition, family planning, per capita income and access to electricity. Following the narrative arc, beginning, middle and end, and magically marching backward and forward across the decades, he built in a villain — the lack of infrastructure — and a potential hero, the mobile phone technology.

Rosling’s charisma flowed only from the power of animated graphics and great imagination, but also his personal crusade, “How not to be ignorant about the world.” Fellow TED speaker, Brené Brown said “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” In any case, it was certainly Rosling that gave data a soul.