Monday, March 31, 2008

Virtual World: Making Data Come Alive

I have a new hero.

He is Hans Rosling (photo credit: OECD). His goal is to unveil the beauty of boring statistics and by so doing, to make them accessible and usable by all of us. In one of his lectures, he shows a slide of the music for a Chopin Nocturne, saying "First, I want to show you something beautiful." He goes on to lament that only musicians would be able to see how beautiful the piece is by reading the notes. "Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is." But, he says of those who love and work with statistics, "Often we show the notes, we don't play the music." I love this man and I've never even met him. He is so dedicated to mining statistics for gold, that he created a nonprofit, Gapminder (after the caution so often heard in the London tube: "Mind the gap."), to transform gray numbers into colorful, moving animated graphics that, most importantly, reveal the stories behind the digits.

That means that even I, whose right brain dwarfs my left, can understand this man, even though he revels, rolls and burrows in huge piles of numbers, those great heaping mounds of information usually shoveled into the appendices of dreary government reports, where it languishes, unread, unused, unintelligible to all but the left-brained. Not only is that unfortunate, says Rosling, it could be disastrous. Why? Because not reading or misperceiving numbers leaves us ignorant, or, dare I say it, stupid in our assessments of what is happening in the world and why. If we don't look at the data, we miss huge changes says Rosling. Such as? Well, the vast alteration in the social fabric of the world, for example, as demonstrated by his 2006 lecture, "Debunking the Myth of the Third World."

To save us all from data illiteracy, Rosling and his colleagues invented the Trendalyzer in 1998. It's a terrific display engine that allows you to plug in an X-axis and a Y-axis and a bunch of elements with different values and then "play" them over time to see change in the two chosen areas of investigation--say, fertility rate (number of children per woman) and life expectancy. Running the numbers for all the countries of the world from 1950 (or whenever they began keeping good statistics) until 2003, quickly explodes the myth that large families and short lives still define the large swath of countries we once knew as the "Third World." Rosling did just this in 2006 at the TED conference, an annual gathering of thinkers, innovators, inventors and more in Monterey, Calif.

Watching Bangladesh suddenly spurt into the small family/high life expectancy portion of the graph as mothers promote family planning in the 1980s is heartening, exciting and mindbending all at once. Watching the African countries plummet out of the worldwide trend toward longer lives as the AIDS crisis hits in the 1990s is sobering and tragic.

Rosling makes it not just edifying, but exciting. He's a Swedish dervish, charting the change in countries and parts of the world the way the announcer calls the Kentucky Derby every spring.

Rosling's reprise at TED in last year was jubilant. First, he beamed when he announced that the United Nations was then on the cusp of making all its data available to anyone who wanted it. His trendalyzer, having been acquired by Google, was newly available right on the Internet without the need for a download. And his statistics showed that among most emerging economies, social progress--such as falling child mortality--is moving ahead of economic progress--measured as income per capita. On the darker side, he also showed that nowhere in the world has economic and social advancement arrived without damage to the climate as measured by carbon dioxide emissions.

Mostly, Rosling uses his animations to deliver counterintuitive insights and to play the contrarian. He wants us to stop lumping Latin American countries in with African and Asian as the Third or developing world. Instead, he would have us tease out country by country and region by region to discover how different they are and, most of all, why.

For example, he says, "Africa has not done bad. In 50 years they have gone from a pre-medieval situation to a very decent 100-years-ago Europe. I would say that sub-Saharan Africa has done best in the world in the last 50 years because we don't consider where they came from. It's this stupid concept of developing countries." Let the animations pique your curiosity, Rosling suggests, and the journey for explanations will enrich us all. "I have a neighbor who knows 200 types of wine. . . but my neighbor only knows two types of countries, industrialized and developing, and I know 200." His message is that with a deeper understanding of real trends we will discover that "the seemingly impossible is possible." Whatever you do, watch all the way through to the end for proof!

So why is Rosling my hero? Because he is paving the way for virtual government, for our ability to use technology to amplify human intelligence. Yes, you might argue that Rosling has a point of view and that his results are colored by the variables he chooses to depict. But that always has been true.

Using his trendalyzer, anyone can choose the variables and play out history. Armed with information, we can make better decisions. Armed with visualized statistics, we can ensure that the many--who heretofore were closed out of the discussion by inaptitude for reading statistics--just as those who cannot read music must hear it to appreciate it--can have the same insights as the few statistically fluent among us. What heretofore has been inscrutable ciphers in columns, now becomes palpable, manipulable, real.

No comments: