How did a public health official from Sweden become the world’s most famous statistician, a television personality and a regular guest speaker at corporate events?
As an undergraduate, Hans Rosling studied statistics and medicine at Uppsala University, Sweden. He earned a PhD, spent two decades studying in Africa and, as chairman of the Karolinska International Research and Training Committee, has collaborated with universities in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Throughout his career, Rosling has maintained a fact-based worldview – an understanding of how global health trends act as a signifier for economic development based on hard data. Today, he argues, countries and corporations alike need to adopt that same data-driven understanding of the world if they are to make sense of the changes we are experiencing in this new century, and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
Alongside his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, Rosling created the Gapminder Foundation to facilitate that process. Using Trendalyzer (a bespoke software tool later sold to Google), the Roslings have reinterpreted static health data as moving, interactive graphics. The results are revelatory, bringing a new awareness of the social and economic history of global health, and demonstrating that creative applications of data can yield extraordinary results.
You’ve long been a proponent of hard data and statistics. In what sense do CEOs need to change their mindset in order to develop a more fact-based view of the world?
My basic idea is that the world has changed so much, what people need isn’t more data but a new mindset. They need a new storage system that can handle this new information. But what I have found over the years is that the CEOs of the biggest companies are actually those that already have the most fact-based worldview, more so than in media, academia or politics. Those CEOs that haven’t grasped the reality of the world have already failed in business. If they don’t understand what is happening in terms of potential new markets in the Middle East, Africa and so on, they are out. So the bigger and more international the organisation, the more fact-based the CEO’s worldview is likely to be. The problem is that they are slow in getting their organisation to follow.
Why is this?
Companies as a whole are stuck in the rut of an old mindset. They think in outworn categories and follow habits and assumptions that are not, or only rarely, based on fact. They need to break out of that to understand the world the way it really is. For instance, in terms of education levels, we no longer live in a world that is divided into the West and the rest; our world today stretches from Canada to Yemen with all the other countries somewhere in between. There’s a broad spectrum of levels and we have to realise that Asia, Brazil, Latin America and, to some extent, the Middle East are catching up with the countries we used to call the ‘West’.
But even when people act within a fact-based worldview, they are used to talking with sterile figures. They are used to standing on a podium, clicking through slide shows in PowerPoint rather than interacting with their presentation. The problem is that companies have a strict separation between their IT department, where datasets are produced, and the design department, so hardly any presenters are proficient in both. Yet this is what we need. Getting people used to talking with animated data is, to my mind, a literacy project.
What kind of data should we be looking at to gain this new mindset?
What’s important today is not just financial data but child mortality rates, the number of children per women, education levels, etc. In the world today, it’s not money that drags people into modern times, it’s people that drag money into modern times. I can demonstrate human resources successes in Asia through health being improved, family size decreasing and then education levels increasing. That makes sense: when more children survive, parents accept that there is less need for multiple births, and they can afford to put their children through school. So Pfizer have moved their research and development of drugs to Asia, where there are brilliant young people who are amazing at developing drugs. It’s realising this kind of change that’s important.
“The problem isn’t that specialised companies lack the data they need, it’s that they don’t go and look for it, they don’t understand how to handle it.”
That’s why CEOs ask me to talk to their staff – so they can learn to look at these interactive videos and gain this new mindset. Then they’ll realise what has changed. In my first TED talk in 2006 I made Al Gore get up on stage. I showed that in Vietnam today they have the same average family size as the US, and the same health as the US in 1980, and their economy is growing faster than the US. Al Gore told me, “I didn’t have the slightest idea.” The problem isn’t that specialised companies lack the data they need, it’s that they don’t go and look for it, they don’t understand how to handle it.
How has Gapminder managed to present data in such a way that you’re able to change people’s preconceptions?
We found that the most important thing when presenting our data [on graphs such as the Health and Wealth of Nations, which tracks 200 years of global life expectancy versus income per person in a four-and-a-half-minute video] was not to put time on the X-axis. We made time move, and when you see the movement, the data becomes like a football match – you can see who is catching up or, for instance, that a country like Bangladesh is reducing its child mortality rate faster than Sweden ever did.
Bangladesh is still at a low level economically, but at the same time there is a huge internal market with cheap distribution and only one language. So if you are a company with ambition, you have to be in Bangladesh. It’s one of the 10 biggest countries in the world, but people’s mindset leads them to believe that Bangladesh is a hopeless place in need of aid. What is so strong with animation is that it provides that mindset shift in market segmentation. We can see where there are highly developed countries with a good economy and a healthy and well-educated staff.
Are there any points of resistance to this process of shifting people’s mindsets?
At the moment, I’m quarrelling with Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He says that the West has to make sure its lead over the rest of the world doesn’t erode. This is a completely wrong attitude. Western Europe and other high-income countries have to integrate themselves into the world in the same way big companies are doing. They have to look at the advantages, resources and markets that exist in different places around the world.
And some organisations aren’t willing to share their data, even though it would be a win-win situation for everybody and we would do much better in tackling the problems we need to tackle. Last April, the World Bank caved in and finally embraced an open data policy, but the OECD uses tax money to compile data and then sells it in a monopolistic way. The Chinese Statistical Bureau provides data more easily than the OECD. The richest countries in the world don’t have the vision to change.
I call this the ‘database hugging disorder’. To heal it, we have to instil a clear division of labour between those who provide the datasets – like the World Bank, the World Health Organisation or companies themselves – those who provide new technologies to access or process them, like Google or Microsoft, and those who ‘play’ with them and give data meaning. It’s like a great concert: you need a Mozart or a Chopin to write wonderful music, then you need the instruments and finally the musicians.
Meteorologists are one group that has a ready grasp of this idea. They receive a huge amount of data, which they process in a highly sophisticated way, translating it into stunning graphics – and there they are on prime-time TV presenting the weather while we all watch. This is exactly what we strive to emulate. We want our economic indicators, our social indicators and our environmental indicators to be communicated on prime-time television with the same level of efficiency.
This is what we’re trying to do at the Gapminder Foundation – and this is what CEOs want their employees to do – play with data and give it meaning.
Por Think Quartertly