Dancing data

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When I was at college, I found presentations based solely on statistics incredibly boring. I find it far more interesting to tell and to listen to stories about individual cases. Storytelling based in experience is still the easiest way to captivate an audience. But everyone appreciates how important statistics are to clarify the facts, and the bottom line. But the good news is that visualising statistics has just got more interesting. Thanks to Hans Rosling, we can animate data across a grid to demonstrate dramatic changes. A global health professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, Rosling decided to teach data to dance when he noticed that nobody was really looking at and understanding the UN facts and figures that were there for everyone to see.

He had been working as a doctor in rural Africa tracking a rare paralytic disease, when he decided to study and teach global health and poverty trends. But he noticed that his students and fellow scientists had preconceptions about the so-called developing world being a world apart from the rest. He decided to change that. So he developed animated visualization software and loaded it with data relating to health and wealth. This let him show that most of the third world is on the same trajectory, or path, toward health and prosperity as the rest of the world. So in fact the so-called Third World is in the process of catching up with the First World. This means that we need to reassess our global health statistics, services and markets completely.

His presentations make the data sink in. When you actually see change visualized you can more easily understand and anticipate further development. This kind of mind-opening, interest generating presentation can encourage involvement, and by association, investment in Africa, as it opens people’s eyes to the rapidly developing markets that the pharmaceutical industry is only on the verge of developing. (See The Economist, 15 May 2008, Quagmire to Goldmine).

The software Rosling developed contains animations that transform development statistics. Figures relating to global trends such as life expectancy, child mortality, poverty rates become immediately accessible, likes points on a scorecard, and the way the figures relate to each other can be explored playfully. See for yourself.

Rosling 2005: Debunking Third-World Myths

Hans Rosling 2006: New Insights on Poverty and Life around the Globe

Rosling developed the breakthrough software behind his visualizations, Trendalyzer, in his Gapminder Foundation, which he co-founded with his son and daughter-in-law. The free software has been adapted by Google into Motion Chart (Ablaufdiagramm), so now any user can make “Gapminder-like” graphs.

Even if it takes a while to really take off, I think this software is a breakthrough for popularizing science. Academics need to reach new audiences who are used to being infotained. Motion captures the essence of change – a variable missing from static charts. So: here’s hoping that more scientists will make their data dance.

  • Gapminder World – the original application
  • Google presents a sample spreadsheet showing the unemployment rate, the house price index, and the percentage of subprime mortgage lending between 2000 and 2006 – the background for the current financial crisis. See sample.
  • Want to try Motion Chart out? Here’s a how-to guide.

Learning the Ropes – die Vokabeln, auf die es ankommt

to captivate – gewinnen, einnehmen
to appreciate – hier: einsehen
the bottom line – das, was zählt
to grow up – erwachsen werden
grid – Raster
talk something up – etwas anpreisen
wake up to something – sich einer Sache bewußt werden
facts and figures – Zahlen, Daten, Fakten
the fact of the matter – Tatsache
to catch up with – einholen
to reassess – neubewerten
rural – ländlich
to track – nachgehen,verfolgen
rare paralytic disease – seltene paralytische Krankheit
preconception – vorgefasste Meinung, Vorurteil
a world apart from the rest – eine abgetrennte Welt
to load with data – mit Daten auffüllen
trajectory – Kurve, Flugbahn
prosperity – Wohnstand
to sink in – ankommen, registrieren
to anticipate – erwarten
interest generating – Interesse weckend
encourage – ermutgen
investment – Investition
be on the verge of – knapp davorstehen
life expectancy – Lebenswerwartung
child mortality – Kindersterblichkeit
poverty rate – Armutsquote
thought-provoking – zum Nachdenken anregend
breakthrough – Durchbruch
to co-found – mitbegründen
daughter-in-law – Schwiegertochter
to adapt – überarbeiten
to take off – abheben
popular science – populäre Wissenschaft, Wissenschaft für alle
academics – Akademiker
served on a silver platter – auf dem Silbertablett servieren
to capture – einfangen
static – statisch
accessible – zugänglich
spreadsheet – Kalkulationstabelle
unemployment rate – Arbeitslosenquote
house price index – Preisindex für Immobilien
the percentage – der Prozentsatz
subprime mortgage lending – Hypothekenvergabe an Risikokunden
debunk myths – Mythen entlarven

Learning English tip of the week

Hans Rosling has it down to a fine art: When you present in a foreign language, you must build in pauses – interrupt your speech flow where the sense of what you are saying calls for a break. You’re not a natural-born sports reporter like Rosling? No problem: just try it out. Take a text you want to practice reading off, and draw lines where you think it needs a break. Then read your text aloud. Afterwards, add the pauses that you noticed were missing, and do it again.


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