The hidden beauty of numbers

Hans Rosling wants to help people make sense of the world by “unveiling the beauty of statistics”. One of a few bright lights in the world of number crunchers, the professor of health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute thinks figures should be “out there, understandable, free and searchable”.

To help him put an end to lifeless spreadsheets and dull PowerPoint presentations, Prof Rosling has created Trendalyzer, a software programme that uses eye-catching graphics and animation to display data.

His application, which he sold to Google in March for an undisclosed amount, holds out the promise of changing public perceptions of official statistics, and it offers companies a potentially powerful weapon in the war for sales.

Prof Rosling’s dissatisfaction with traditional ways of presenting data is echoed by others. Enrico Giovannini, the chief statistician at the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, is horrified by research showing many people have “no idea” about inflation or unemployment rates in their country, even though most say they want to know more.

He believes that inventive ways of presenting data can make citizens more knowledgeable, citing the weather map as the perfect example of something that is widely understood, even if only meteorologists can grasp the millions of underlying numbers.

Technology can help. IBM’s “Many Eyes” project, a recently launched data display website, allows users to load, visualise and discuss numbers – ranging from economic indicators to sport or even literature statistics. It has also added social networking tools.

California-based Swivel is another site that lets people share and display data in a similar way. Users can load data, merge it with other figures and present it in chart form at the click of a button. The service is free if the data remain in the public domain but Swivel will shortly release a “professional” version for companies that want to keep data private.

The appeal of Rosling’s software – which can be seen in presentations on his foundation’s website, – is its dynamic element. Users can play around with different variables, highlighting them in colour, chopping and changing between years, switching from countries to continents, and watching them shift over time.

In one Gapminder presentation, the traditional points on the compass are replaced with “healthy”, “sick”, “rich” and “poor”. All the world’s countries are plotted with Norway and Iceland in the top right quadrant and Somalia and Liberia among those in the bottom left. Cuba is in the top left and Equatorial Guinea in the bottom right. Press play, and the countries – represented as coloured bubbles – expand, contract and shift on the screen as the years pass.

Brian Mulloy, chief executive of Swivel, says such presentation tools could have many applications for small and medium-sized businesses. For instance, a head of sales might want to add some pizzazz to revenue updates for a far-flung team, or a company’s analyst might want to plot turnover against the weather or some other unusual variable.

Prof Rosling began developing the software as a way of helping his students. After some years working in Africa, where he discovered konzo, an epidemic paralytic disease, and was a co-founder of the Swedish arm of Médecins Sans Frontières, he took a teaching job at the Karolinska Institute. It is thanks to his students’ outdated view of the world, he says, that he strayed into the world of statistics and their presentation.

He relished the discovery – “where there is ignorance I can teach” – but says he worries about how many heads around the world “are full of preconceived ideas”. On the premise that “the world can never be understood without numbers – or with only numbers”, he set about constructing a programme that could help people and business make sense of the world.

The link between data and people ought to be simple, he says, passing from source, through interpreters and researchers, then the media and finally to citizens. However, statistics often appear “boring, difficult, expensive and generally not fun to look at”.

He draws an analogy with music: most people would find the written notes dull but love them when they are played. He says he wants to “play the statistics” and is adamant that “he has the eye of the user” in mind all the time.

There is no doubting the impact of his work among statisticians, which is partly down to his engaging lecture style. Paul Cheung, head of statistics at the United Nations, says that his “bubble graphs and horse-racing jokes” have “pushed and cajoled statistical offices around the world to reach for a higher standard of data dissemination”.

Prof Rosling is a consummate performer but has a simple message. In the same way that “you don’t have to pay to walk up a street”, he says, information and understanding about our world should be free and widely accessible. “Statistics should be the intellectual sidewalks”.

Google should be able to deliver that. The search engine group describes the software as “a genuinely innovative way of showing complex data in a way that people can easily understand” and reflects that its mission is “to organise the world’s information – including public data – to make it universally accessible”.

Prof Rosling claims to have a strong following among heads of state, who love to compare their country’s performance with a neighbour’s, and among the web-based young. He also says companies are “extremely interested” and expects corporate applications to follow rapidly – arguing that businesses, already very analytical in their approach, need little persuasion of the appeal of a fact-based view of the world.

He warns, however, that the inefficient use of data could hold back progress. In contrast, the problem with public-sector data is that national agencies are reluctant to allow access.

Presentation styles in the corporate world of the management consultant are ready for a shake-up, he says, and mocks anodyne executive presentations using PowerPoint and given from behind lecterns. “I want to show you that I am a serious professor,” he says near the end of one of his presentations, “which is why I have put some bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.”

One regular conference speaker says: “Speaking after Rosling is worse than the session after lunch in a hot auditorium – he’s a tough act to follow”.

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