Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Gapminder or “Making sense of the world by having fun with statistics"

“Fun” and “statistics” aren’t words that normally fit together. Endless unreadable charts, incomprehensible graphs (what does x stand for, again?...), average, mean, median, standard deviation…Yes, statistics can certainly be boring. However, as illustrated by Gapminder, a non-profit dedicated to communicating and disseminating global-development statistics, this isn’t necessarily the case.

Hans Rosling, one of Gapminder’s cofounders, is a Swedish medical doctor and public health researcher. While teaching international health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Rosling realized that the traditional way of presenting statistics was an obstacle to his students’ understanding of the health and economic trends shaping the world. So, helped by his son Ola, he developed a short animated movie illustrating the progress of states – moving bubbles, whose size represents population – along both health and economic indicators. As described in a BusinessWeek article:

"When the bubble started to move, people got very excited!" Rosling gleefully recalls. His students sat bolt upright as he began calling global development as if it were a horse race: And there goes China down the stretch, while sub-Saharan Africa continues to fall farther and father behind.... "It was a tremendous breakthrough in my lecturing," reflects Rosling.

Rosling’s presentation, “Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you've ever seen”, was considered the high point of the 2006 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference, which is an American alternative to the stuffier Swiss-based World Economic Forum. (The TED Conference, held annually in Monterey, California, is modestly described by its organizers as “The ultimate brain spa,” “Davos for optimists” and “A four-day journey into the future, in the company of those creating it.”) Here’s the video of Rosling’s talk:

Rosling’s work, however, isn’t just about eye-candy like nice animations. Behind the Gapminder initiative is the idea that data about the world should be free, accessible and understandable. Adopting an “open-source philosophy” may highlight possible errors and omissions and therefore has the potential to improve data quality and transparency.

As in global development, it’s time to promote a “fact-based worldview” in the field of armed violence. In June I attended a workshop organized by the Small Arms Survey in Geneva on measuring and costing armed violence. It occurred to me there that principles and tools, like the ones developed by the Gapminder initiative, could greatly increase understanding of armed violence and of its cost, not least among multilateral policy makers.

We know this because in January, as part of the Disarmament Insight initiative, we held a workshop with nearly 30 Geneva based multilateral practitioners from diplomatic Missions, international organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations and think tanks. Our warm up for the day was to show them Rosling’s 20-minute TED talk above. It had every one of them transfixed.

In a subsequent Disarmament Insight workshop in May, the economist Paul Seabright (author of ‘The Company of Strangers’) showed participants that some dimensions of global armed violence are deeply counter-intuitive, something we’ll return to in coming posts on this blog. Obviously, if policy makers are unaware of these dimensions they’re less likely to be effective in tackling problems of armed violence.

A “statistics about armed violence for the rest of us”, please?

Aurélia Merçay


Gapminder: http://www.gapminder.org/

Information about the TED conferences is available at http://www.ted.com/. You'll find Rosling’s presentation here (it can also be downloaded for free as a video podcast from the iTunes Music Store).

Andrew Blum, “Graphing the Development Gap”, BusinessWeek, 22 February 2006, available online here.

Photo of Hans Rosling retrieved from his personal blog.