In the late 1990s, Dr. Hans Rosling became frustrated by the x-axis, which -- as all middle-schoolers know -- is the part of a graph used to measure time. But for Rosling's global-development students at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, it was also the obstacle to their understanding of the health and economic trends that were shaping the globe.
"The students didn't have a fact-based worldview," says Rosling, who helps kick off this year's TED conference -- that's technology, education, and design -- on Feb. 22. "They talked about 'we' and 'them' the whole time -- and even the official terminology of 'industrialized' and 'developing' countries failed to communicate that there is a continuity from the world's poorest nations to the richest."
So Rosling did what any medical doctor and public-health researcher who had spent countless hours playing video games with his children would do: He enlisted his son's help in creating a short animated movie, with floating bubbles representing nations' progress along both health and economic indicators. The y-axis measured child survival. The x-axis measured gross domestic product per capita. And time was time, with each passing second ticking off the years. The size of the bubble represented population; it floated up and to the right for improving health and wealth; it floated down and to the left for failing economies and societies.
"When the bubble started to move, people got very excited!" Rosling gleefully recalls. His students sat bolt upright as he began calling global development as if it were a horse race: And there goes China down the stretch, while sub-Saharan Africa continues to fall farther and father behind.... "It was a tremendous breakthrough in my lecturing," reflects Rosling.
The World Health Organization agreed, and in 1999 awarded Rosling a $25,000 grant to develop the World Health Chart 2001, an interactive animation that uses WHO data to explain health development around the world. Along with additional support from the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation, Rosling founded Gapminder, a nonprofit dedicated to better communicating and disseminating global-development statistics -- as a means to "mind the gap" between the world's rich and poor, sick and healthy.
But Gapminder was to be more than just graphics. Between the clean lines and clarity of its presentations lies an argument about the need for information -- particularly about the state of human development -- to be free and accessible. Gapminder marries an open-source philosophy with interactive graphic design, trumpeting the notion that making global statistical information more easily understood will make it accessible to a greater number of people, and thereby increase the demand for it. And increasing that demand will cultivate a "fact-based worldview" -- the only viable counter to a world Rosling terms, with typical fact-based flair, "doubly, inversely, logarithmically unjust."
REACHING THE MASSES.
Rosling believes that making information more accessible has the potential to change the quality of the information itself. Eric Swanson, program manager for the World Bank's Development Economics Data Group, a leading supplier and compiler of global-development statistics, explains: "Anything that makes people look hard at data increases the feedback to the suppliers [of the data], and therefore ultimately increases [its] quality. Our riff is that nobody wants poor-quality data, and if nobody wants it, then there's really no reason to supply it. You need to break into that cycle and increase the awareness of how data can be used." Gapminder's graphical illustrations shine a spotlight on the data, not only increasing its visibility, but potentially putting its errors and omissions in starker relief.
Seeking to make its visual tools available to the broadest possible constituency, Gapminder has worked from the beginning to create software that allows others to create their own visual presentations of the data. Accordingly, Gapminder has been developing a program called Trendalyzer that works from the data itself, rather than a fixed graphical presentation. Developed in Macromedia's Flash, the current beta version of Trendalyzer is preloaded with a built-in data set, but can also accept imported Microsoft (MSFT) Excel files, allowing users to create animations derived from hundreds of different variables.
The intended audience is not lay people, but researchers, civil servants, journalists, and activists who will then present their graphical analyses to a broader public -- including on TV. Gapminder recently has been collaborating with the PBS investigative-journalism series Frontline to create statistical animations for a forthcoming episode on HIV. By linking Trendalyzer to existing database languages, Gapminder-like illustrations could even be created from global financial data. (Rosling jokes that as long as Gapminder looks better than the Nasdaq's stock browser, it will survive.)
OPEN TO INTERPRETATION.
For Xavier Sala-i-Martin, professor of economics at Columbia University, Gapminder created an animation for an influential paper, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, that reinterpreted the World Bank's data on world income distribution. "I knew the best way to communicate the lessons of my paper was dynamic, but I was doing it the old fashioned way -- namely with a PowerPoint [presentation] putting all the pictures one on top of another, so the distribution [of income] moves," says Sala-i-Martin.
Working from 138 Excel files showing the distribution of income in each country between 1970 and 2000, Gapminder used Trendalyzer to create an animation (available on its Web site). For Sala-i-Martin, it not only became an oft-used presentation tool, but the fact that Trendalyzer worked from the data itself reinforced his paper's message that the global-development data was open to broad interpretation.
"The key point is that, if you don't trust me, you can use Trendalyzer to compare with other data sets," explains Sala-i-Martin. And having better tools to analyze the data encourages closer examination. "If this becomes successful and everyone is forced to put their data on the Web, so it can be compared, it would be a great contribution to transparency," he adds.
For Rosling, the ultimate goal is clear: a browser that links the world's primary repositories of development statistics -- including those not freely available, such as the World Bank's data and the Canadian census -- into a single graphical interface. Rosling imagines entering "Fish + Malawi" or "HIV + Uganda," and being able to create animated graphs in real time, showing the fall in health and income due to the overfishing of Lake Malawi, or the devastation caused by HIV in Uganda -- with the ability to choose from several alternative data sets.
Rosling compares the concept to the Human Genome Project, in which researchers upload gene sequences into a shared database every night. Yet developing that technology may be beyond the reach of Gapminder alone. "I proved I could swim across the English Channel, but that doesn't mean I'm the best one to build a tunnel," jokes Rosling. All the more reason why Gapminder, as a nonprofit, is eager to shout from the rooftops its vision of a fact-based world.
"If we can make a good-enough prototype, then Google (GOOG) will pick this up," Rosling says.