“Statistics should be the intellectual sidewalks of a society, and people should be able to build businesses and operate on the side of them,” said Gapminder Foundation Director Hans Rosling at a discussion hosted by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program on May 26, 2009. In his spirited and often humorous remarks, Rosling praised the 25-year-old Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) program, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Macro International, Inc., as “public-private partnership at its best.” The DHS program works with countries’ health ministries to collect data on family planning, child and maternal health, disease prevalence, and other health indicators, and makes the data freely available for public use.
The Beauty Behind the Data
Rosling uses Gapminder’s signature “moving bubble” Trendalyzer software—which Google purchased and made available as “Motion Chart”—to graphically demonstrate global health, economic, and environmental trends. Gapminder uses data from several sources, including DHS surveys, to generate its illuminating displays.
“Sweden, during the last hundred years, didn’t achieve [the] Millennium Development Goal rate” for yearly reductions in child mortality, Rosling explained. “We are putting goals for Tanzania, Bangladesh that [were] never…achieved by any country in West Europe or North America.” The remarkable thing, said Rosling, is that many low-income countries are achieving or even surpassing these demanding targets.
Free Access, Unified Formatting Are Top Priorities
Rosling stressed that access to data must be free, and admonished the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and others who charge for their statistics. “They say, ‘No, we can’t give the data to the people because they will make wrong comparisons, and they will make wrong conclusions,’” Rosling continued, “and I say ‘Yes, we call it freedom.’”
Rosling cautioned against “database-hugging disorder,” or statisticians’ tendency to guard their data because of concerns about budgets or misinterpretation. A better approach, he insisted, is to embrace innovations like the Creative Commons license, which encourages sharing information by offering a range of easy-to-understand legal protections and freedoms for creative works, data, and information.
In addition, “we don’t have a unified format for data,” Rosling said, and “that’s why the transaction costs are so enormously high, and that’s why those who put data together in unified format charge for it.” He cited YouTube as an excellent medium for broadening public distribution of data. To the audience’s delight, a live Google search for “sex, money, and health” returned a YouTube clip of one of his own presentations as its top hit.
Improving Lives With Data
“The worst environmental problem today is that two million children die of diarrhea [each year], and that billions of people drink their neighbors’ lukewarm feces,” said Rosling, and yet “water and sanitation data is very, very weak.” Collecting information from remote areas—often the most impoverished—is difficult. Measuring access to potable water is complicated because it requires community-based calculations, which do not fit into DHS’ household-centric methodology.
Rosling called upon young adults to work to “eradicate unnecessary disease and poverty in the world.” He also advocated improved post-graduate training in statistics, particularly in low-income countries.
Better statistical data will foment more effective solutions to development challenges—provided there are ambassadors like Rosling willing and able to unveil the beauty behind the numbers.
Photo: Hans Rosling. Courtesy of Dave Hawxhurst and the Wilson Center.