Business Unusual

Hans Rosling - ignorance's greatest enemy

Swedish national Hans Rosling died on 7 February 2017 from cancer. He was 68.

He is remembered by captains of industry and heads of state for his contribution to highlight the greatest issues facing humanity and the means to overcome them.

A doctor by training; he first worked in Mozambique after independence to support the new nation in dire need after so many medical professionals had left the country. He went on to obtain his PhD for work in the DRC in determining the cause of a disease affecting the malnourished.

His work as an academic launched his public speaking career. He was surprised that Swedish graduates who signed up for his course on public health were more ignorant about the state of public health than someone who knew nothing about it.

What you know may harm your understanding of the truth

The issue he realised is that we pick up perceptions about the world which may have been true at one point, but don’t update them as the situation changes.

He illustrated the point in a 2006 TED Talk that chimps would often perform better on some of the questions than trained professionals. Chimps were randomly selecting an answer, the professionals were relying on what they thought was true which sometimes made them choose the wrong answer.

He noted that while new data was showing the significant changes, the data was often difficult for the public or even the media to report on.

Using software to visualise the data made illustrating the issues and the changes much easier.

The Gapminder software was acquired by Google and made available to anyone to display datasets.

He and the Gapminder foundation ran surveys around the world to determine the levels of ignorance about the state of public health and development. South Africa was polled in 2015, you can see how you would have fared against your fellow South Africans.

In 1950 there were fewer than one billion children (aged 0-14) in the world. By 2000 there were almost two billion. How many do UN experts think there will be in 2100?


More open data is a good thing and citizens should call for more

The best way to challenge old thinking is with new information and he praised the many institutions that made their data public from the United Nations to governments and cities.

He called for even more to be placed in the public domain as the best way to counter those who could simply make false claims about everything from climate change to crime.

Reading tables is hard; make the insights visual

He noted that access to the data itself was not enough, it needed to be ordered and displayed in a way that was easy to read and understand.

In his series called the Joy of Stats he acknowledged Florence Nightingale as one of the first to realise that when data is presented in a visual way, it can better convey the true impact of the issue (she had shown that battlefield deaths in the Crimean war was far less than those occurring off the battlefield).

What percentage of adults in the world today are literate?


Population growth is not an issue

A theme in many of his talks is that we fear population growth as a significant negative future impact and that, in developed nations, it would be mostly the poor adding to the world population.

He demonstrates via multiple datasets that it is not the most significant issue anymore and showed that with a focus on public health and the provision of economic opportunities to women even the poorest countries have stabilised their population growth rates.

What percentage of the world's one-year-old children is vaccinated against measles?



Rosling had wondered if he was simply becoming famous for his talks rather than having an impact, but considering that Bill Gates, after attending one of his talks, decided to commit billions to public health solutions suggests that his impact was real.

His work has changed the way data is presented from website visits to votes cast, from Olympic wins to DNA gene traits. Using both physical representations and virtual ones he has helped develop the field of data journalism and could be regarded as part of those that will one day help us root out false narratives.

A playlist of his talks is available on the TED website.

A tribute posted to the Gapminder foundation by his son, sets out how Rosling would love to be remembered and I would encourage you to read it.

If Hans Rosling were to be described in statistical terms then we can agree he was not average.

This is how it began over 10 years ago.

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