Hans Rosling and Gapminder: Revolutionizing Data in Global Health

| November 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

Image credit: NIH.

Hans Rosling was as spry as ever during his talk sponsored by the Harvard Statistics Department in late October, a preacher of sorts for the clear communication of data on global trends. At one point, Rosling illustrated the pitfalls of PowerPoint presentations by circling the stage with his pants rolled up—what he considers the sartorial equivalent to small font size on a slide. Communicating data in an elegant and informative way was the vision behind the Trendalyzer software developed by Rosling’s Gapminder Foundation in 2006, a vision that has continued to grow under the direction of Google since Trendalyzer was acquired by the company in 2007.

The innovation in Trendalyzer’s software is what Rosling calls “freeing the x-axis from time”: the software allows for the graphing of two metrics, with countries represented by data points that move along the graph while time elapses in the background. One can see, for instance, the simultaneous drops in fertility and infant mortality that have occurred in the past 50 years. The motivation behind developing the software was to make people aware of the fallacies in long-held beliefs about global trends. Rosling refers to his neighbor in Sweden who knows two hundred kinds of wines but only two kinds of countries: Western and Developing. Instead, he says, we should recognize that many countries are already well on their way to achieving the economic growth necessary to meet the basic health and hygiene needs of their populations. Indeed, in visualizing the data from international organizations such as the WHO and the World Bank, surprising trends begin to emerge: Bangladesh has a fertility rate just slightly higher than that of the US, and Tanzania is lowering its child mortality rate more rapidly than Sweden did when it had similar rates in the early 20th century.

The Gapminder Foundation today presents over 507 metrics, and offers both raw data and its visualization for free. The global health category contains 163 metrics ranging from the broadest causes of childhood mortality to specific types of cancer. Google Data Explorer, launched in 2010, provides an integrated way of selecting metrics in these same datasets. Google Motion Charts is another tool spun out from Gapminder in which users are able to upload and visualize their own datasets using Google’s HTML code. To date, Rosling’s project has been limited to national-level data collected by international organizations. For instance, he used Gapminder data on foreign aid to illustrate the shortcomings of UNICEF’s developing/developed country list, which the organization has since stopped using in its reports. However, the next step in abandoning our misguided paradigms would be to convey the demographic heterogeneity within a country. In the future, Google Motion Charts may provide a more collaborative way of visualizing and sharing smaller and more targeted datasets. But for now, one man’s vision to clarify the bigger picture is opening eyes and turning heads, which can’t be helped when the messenger is even more dynamic and animated than the medium itself.

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