April 26, 2013 3:31 pm

At home: statistician Hans Rosling

The Swedish academic who has revolutionised how we look at statistics
Trendalyzer, the software behind the Gapminder Foundation©www.gapminder.org

Trendalyzer, the software behind the Gapminder Foundation. Image: www.gapminder.org

It is still a brisk early morning when Hans Rosling flings open the door of his fourth-floor, 1930s Stockholm apartment: a bright, one-bedroom bolt-hole where he lives when he is not out performing on tour.

Hans Rosling at his pied-à-terre in Stockholm©Lina Haskel

Hans Rosling at his pied-à-terre in Stockholm, a fourth-floor 1930s apartment

Rosling, 64, is not a Swedish pop-star but a professor of global health at Karolinska Institute and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, who has achieved celebrity status as a guru on demographic statistics.

With his enthusiasm for facts and his animated graphics, Rosling has made comparative statistics on global health and economic growth so alluring that in 2007 Google paid an undisclosed amount for Trendalyzer, the software behind the Gapminder Foundation. In his Gapminder World video graphics, coloured bubbles, representing different countries, ping-pong forwards and upwards on the screen to plot the changes in life expectancy and income per person between the years 1800 and 2011. Elsewhere on the site, the same design is used to chart trends in HIV infection, child mortality rates and CO2 emissions since 1820.

“Have you ever searched ‘sex, money and health’ on the internet?” asks Rosling, taking a seat at a tiny, window-side dining table that doubles as a desk. “Look who comes up on top!” he says gleefully, as a search on his computer turns up his site. Rosling’s exuberance masks a serious mission: to use public statistics to improve our knowledge about population, income, life expectancy and even the perceived gap between the industrialised and developing worlds.

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“There is no gap between the ‘west and the rest’ any longer,” he argues. “It’s gone. It’s a continuum and most live in the middle. People talk about the world today without understanding the core facts ... There’s been a global tectonic shift and it’s mainly demographic ... Three-quarters of mankind now live in societies where two-child families are the norm ... The west used to be ahead but everybody’s catching up.”

Rosling and his wife Agneta, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Uppsala, a city around 70km north of Stockholm, found their pied-à-terre two years ago: “We like the area. This is the Greenwich Village of Stockholm. It’s the creative sector.” The previous occupant started refurbishments, including painting the kitchen cabinets a cobalt blue. “The young woman had great plans. She fixed the kitchen and then fell in love with a guy who had a bigger apartment.”

The interior is sparsely decorated, with space only for a double bed, but it once housed a famous resident. “Ingmar Bergman lived here. This was his first apartment. In The Magic Lantern he writes about the wonderful love nights he spent here,” says Rosling, noting that Bergman tackled problems of the inner world. “He solved bourgeois nervosity, the other end of the human dilemma.”

Windowsill in the kitchen©Lina Haskel

Windowsill in the kitchen

It is fair to say that Rosling’s focus is the outer world; his interest in global trends and issues was sparked during his childhood in Uppsala. “This all started when I was four. My father was a blue-collar worker, roasting coffee. He came home with coins in his pocket that people had dropped in by accident while drying the coffee beans in Guatemala, Brazil, east Africa. And he would open an atlas and tell me about the conditions of the coffee-pickers across the world.”

After medical school in Uppsala, Rosling worked in Mozambique as a doctor from 1979 to 1981. He continued as a researcher across Africa, discovering the cause of a rare paralytic disease produced by toxins of cassava plants. He also started to compare conditions around the world. “We were only two doctors for 300,000 people in my district [in Mozambique]. One year I was alone. [At the same time] in Sweden there were 800 doctors for 300,000. I’m still recuperating from the numerical trauma.”

The experience shaped Rosling’s career. “‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Matthew 6:11,” he says. “It’s the line in the Bible I remind people about. 1.3bn still don’t manage to secure their daily bread.” It prompted him to turn to statistics for an overview of global change.

Artwork in the main room©Lina Haskel

Artwork in the main room

“The speed and magnitude of progress in the world was faster than I’d imagined. Since I first saw it, poverty has fallen from 40 to 20 per cent of mankind. It’s absolutely fantastic what’s happening. The vast majority of children now go to school. And at 5 per cent, the child mortality rate has never been so low. It’s just that out of the 7m children that die, 6m die among the poorest 2bn.”

Rosling mimics a race-car commentator as he rattles off numbers and charts countries’ accelerating economic and social rise on the Gapminder World graphics. He credits his son, Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund, for creating the design and source code behind his trademark bouncing bubbles.

“We can chart money on the horizontal and health on the vertical. And then you can see that the old west got richer before it got healthier. The rest of the world has taken another path. They’ve gotten healthier first ... Vietnam has the health now of the US in 1970 but the income of 1870.” Results are often counterintuitive: “US life expectancy is closer to Mexico now than Canada.”

Trendalyzer, the software behind the Gapminder Foundation

Watch one of Hans Rosling’s Gapminder World video graphics, which plot the changes in life expectancy and income per person between 1800 and 2011

The Google sale, says Rosling, allows Gapminder to keep mining data for free public use. “The money goes towards the foundation.” But doesn’t the involvement of Google risk commercialising Rosling’s work? “It’s open-access,” he replies. “You can use Google Motion Chart software to get the bubbles. The apps are free. We are just going to educate.”

Rosling and his wife spend weekends in their house in Uppsala and are close to their three children and seven grandchildren. “Our grandkids spend the weekends with us. We have lived in the same row house since 1983.” He sometimes brings his grandchildren to the Stockholm apartment as a treat. Where do they sleep? “We put out little mattresses on the floor. They love it.”

The apartment may be short on space but Rosling points out another attraction: the view of a pink 18th-century building. “People buy beautiful-looking apartments. They should live across from them.”

Rosling’s laptop sits open on a dining table-desk©Lina Haskel

Rosling’s laptop sits open on a dining table-desk

Rosling is now working on a video to correct common misperceptions about the world’s population growth. “In 2100, we’ll be 10bn. That’s a constant. Then the fast growth will be over.” He shows me another graph. “Everyone still thinks that countries like Bangladesh, Iran, Brazil have five, six children. But Brazil has 1.8 children per family, less than Sweden.” He cites a vital key to ensuring our survival. “Fix child mortality rates in the remaining poorest countries, like the Congo and Afghanistan, and global population will stop growing.” Why? “People in countries with high child mortality rates have more children to compensate.”

The interview comes to an end and Rosling stuffs his computer into a backpack before dashing out of the apartment. He is late for an appointment at his work-studio nearby where his son, the Gapminder director, and daughter-in-law are waiting.

“We’re filming dolls to illustrate the world’s population fill-up effect. It takes time to make it clear and the dolls the right size.” As he heads down the street, Rosling adds a parting thought. “We’re not a think-tank. We’re a fact-tank ... I have to show the world the facts. Just talking doesn’t work any more.”

A Swedish army bayonet from 1815 and a sword swallower’s badge©Lina Haskel

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A sword swallower’s badge: “This is one of five badges in Sweden. To get the badge you have to put the sword 42cm down [your throat],” says Rosling, explaining his sword-swallowing hobby. “My best friend in medical school was a magician. And we were shown an X-ray of a sword-swallower and I tried it and failed. Then I got a sword-swallower as a patient and he taught me,” says Rosling, whose sword is a Swedish army bayonet from 1815. His hobby is a break from his day job as a public health expert and one of just a handful of specialists in his medical field. “I am a toxico-nutritional neuro-epidemiologist,” adds Rosling. “It’s the study of neurological disorders caused by a mixture of toxins and malnutrition using epidemiological methods ... We are just three or four in the world, even fewer than sword swallowers.”

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