Future Crunch
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Future Crunch

A Tribute To My Favourite Data Jedi

Professor Hans Rosling has passed away. The memories and accolades have been flooding in from every corner of the globe. Here’s mine.

For those of you who’ve never heard his name, Professor Rosling was a Jedi master of data, who spread good news to anyone who’d listen. He came from the world of academia. A world of tweed jackets, cold wooden seats and petty departmental infighting. A world where you have to worry about valid sources, double blind peer-review, evidence-based decision making, reproducible studies and accounting for incomplete data.

He believed in the power of proper research. The stories he told were built on high quality statistics and serious science. He was suspect of human intuition: data was far more important. He thought it was a problem that human progress was discussed in terms of feelings and ideologies rather than as an area of knowledge. He used to say, “I don’t debate, there are too many debates. Too much Word, not enough Excel.

And yet Professor Rosling also understood human nature. He realised good data wasn’t enough; you have to show it in ways that people enjoy and understand. Millions of people had access to the same datasets he did. Rosling’s genius was in realising the powerful message they contained would only make sense to the wider public if he could give that data a bit of soul. It didn’t always have to be fancy visualisations — he’d happily use toilet rolls, baskets of apples, plastic buckets and even swords.

As Melinda Gates said,

Where others saw nothing more than statistics, Hans saw the chance to tell an incredible human story about our progress against poverty and disease… a data geek through and through, he used numbers to educate us, to entertain us and to share his special brand of big-hearted, evidence-based optimism.

For me though, the best thing about Professor Rosling’s was his attitude. He was warm, funny and caring, and scathing in his contempt for media and politics. Most people remember his 2006 TED talk, or his 2010 appearance on BBC. But for me his greatest moment is the 10 minute interview he gave on Danish television in 2015. As the host of the show trots out the same old tired cliches about immigration, war, poverty and population growth, Rosling demolishes them one by one, and finishes with the line “You can’t use media if you want to understand the world.”

This was someone who understood that the stories we tell ourselves really matter. His message was that the world is getting better, but that we need to understand the data if we want to help those being left behind. So how should we remember him? Swedish journalist Peter Fällmar Andersson says it best.

So how do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting that he sometimes swallowed swords in a heavy metal tank top.
And by remembering that mothers in Bangladesh no longer give birth to five children on average, nor four, but TWO POINT TWO children.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting that he got more clicks than Lady Gaga online.
And by remembering that 80 percent of the children of the world now have access to the most important and most cost efficient of all vaccines: the one for measles.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting false quotes, distributed by people who want everything for the world but Rosling’s humanism.
And remembering that he spoke of the refugees on the Mediterranean by saying: ”Send a ferry to help them over, instead of saving them when they are about to drown.”

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting that Time Magazine put him on some list.
And by remembering that Hans Rosling was certain that the world, if it gets its act together, can reach the goal that the United Nations set for the year 2030: to exterminate extreme poverty for everyone, everywhere.

I write a fortnightly newsletter called The Crunch, about science and technology and human progress.

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Angus Hervey

Angus Hervey


From Melbourne and Cape Town, with love. Political economist and journalist, and co-founder of futurecrun.ch