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Let my dataset change your mindset

August 28, 2010

In the previous post, I shared a video of David McCandless giving a talk about information visualisation. One phrase caught my attention and a bit of research lead to a very good discovery. The phrase and context is (emphasis is mine):

We need relative figures that are connected to other data so that we can see a fuller picture, and then that can lead to us changing our perspective. As Hans Rosling, the master, my master, said, “Let the dataset change your mindset“. And if it can do that, maybe it can also change your behavior.

Who is Hans Rosling? A Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and Director of the Gapminder Foundation (from Wikipedia). Nothing fancy nor anything related to information visualisation at first sight. Except that the Gapminder Foundation is “a non-profit venture promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals“. So what? Gapminder also “pursue[s] the development of the Trendalyzer […] [seeking] to unveil the beauty of statistical time series by converting boring numbers into enjoyable, animated and interactive graphics“.

And this software is really great (see screenshot below but, above all, in all Rosling’s videos): from one single interface, you can gather lots of different types and sources of data (about the development of the countries of the world) on the same chart and it nicely display them along more than the two dimensions of your screen. Bubble sizes and colours represent other dimensions. And the whole thing move with time (years).

Trendanalyzer screenshot

What is also very interesting is that you can play with Trendanalyzer (in Gapminder world) and download the data behind it. In addition, Google acquired Trendanalyzer and offers some of its components as a “gadget”: Motion Chart.

The beauty of the software is nothing without appropriate use. And in all of his videos, Hans Rosling makes appropriate use of data visualisation, succeeding in converting messages heavily relying on statistics and various sources of data (not something usually visual attractive) in simple visualisations. As David McCandless said: “It’s effortless; it literally pours in”. By visualising it in such a way, it’s more easy for the dataset to try to change your mindset.

Because the tool isn’t everything. With its help, Hans Rosling is trying to convey messages. And if you watch any of his videos, you’ll see that he effectively succeeds in doing it wether it’s to make you stop talking about “developing” countries or to make you think about the role of the end of poverty in the growth of world population, for example. In his Six Minutes blog, Andrew Dlugan summarises Hans Rosling’s technique in 6 points:

  1. Explain the data axes
  2. Highlight subsets of data
  3. Dig deeper to unwrap data
  4. Place labels close to data points
  5. Answer the “Why?” questions
  6. Complement data with energetic delivery

Hans Rosling presenting The seemingly impossible is possible at TED 2007

Althought some of these techniques were taught or discovered by own practise during B.Sc./M.Sc./Ph.D., the combination of them make a presentation very effective, even in front of a small audience.

Why do I blog this? I watched all Rosling’s videos in one go. Once the current presentation was over, it was difficult to resist to watch the next one. From a general perspective, I’m very interested in all means to ease the way people can grasp huge amount of data and to maintain their interest during presentations. From a more practical perspective, I’m starting to deal with some amount of information for various projects and I’m looking for attractive ways to show them. And I was about to forget Hans Rosling is professor of Global Health, a field close to my current one: Health Economics. You couldn’t dream of a better thing than learning more about your field with interesting ideas and appealing presentations.
What triggered the redaction of this blog post is the release of a 55-minute documentary about Hans Rosling’s life and thoughts on YouTube.

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