Visual data: the digital revolution in graphs – feedback

One of the great things about running a blog is that when you write about something interesting that you know little about, readers rush in with a wealth of further information. Contrarian friend Andrew Weissman directed us to an extraordinary TED talk by Hans Rosling illustrating the phenomenal potential of the digital graphs we touched on this morning.

Rosling is a professor of international medicine at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet (the organization that hands out the Nobel Prize for Medicine). He discovered Konzo, a previously unknown paralytic disease associated with hunger in Africa. He also co-founded the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software that turns international health statistics into moving, interactive, and revelation-generating graphics for public use. Here’s a stunning example, from Rosling’s TED talk, “Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen.”

Notice how much data is compressed into the moving chart shown about three and a half minutes in. Each dot represents a country. The x-axis (horizontal) tracks the number of women per child in each county, a measure of family size. The y-axis (vertical) shows the percentage of a country’s children that survive to age five, a measure of health. The size of each dot represents its population, the color shows its region of the world.

When Rosling animates the chart, it brings 40+ years of history to life, starting in 1962. The dots become a beehive, moving purposefully through the decades. As they do, obscure trends in world health—many of them counter-intuitive—suddenly become obvious. Whereas the planet could aptly be divided into “developed world” and “third world” in 1962, Rosling shows that today’s world defies easy pigeon holes. Rosling’s software tools make sense of an otherwise impenetrable data set.

Well, don’t read about it. Watch the video.

Two years ago, Google purchased Trendalyzer. You can now add simple animated graphs to your website using a free Google Gadget called Motion Chart. Gapminder maintains a series of more sophisticated online tools to help people map world data they are prepared to share freely.