Feature Profile

Hans Rosling: Animated about statistics

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b2801 (Published 21 July 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b2801
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. 1London
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

    Hans Rosling’s efforts to make health statistics understandable have also found a way to make them fun. Geoff Watts talks to him about his work

    On my computer screen I’m about to view a short presentation downloaded from YouTube.1 It’s about the history of life expectancy in relation to income. I click on play, and the title gives way to the face of a middle aged man with short brown hair and glasses, clearly being recorded by a camera mounted on his desktop computer. This image occupies the top left hand corner of my screen; the rest is taken up with a striking graphic featuring variously coloured blobs and dots of different sizes. The man begins to speak. The accent is Nordic. “It was the last 200 years that changed the world. I will show you . . .” His eyes flick from the camera down to his computer screen as he moves its cursor (and mine). In less than five minutes he vividly illustrates two centuries of global change.

    The man is Hans Rosling, professor of international health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, and he’s doing what he does best: using an animated computer graphics system of his own devising to put life into what might otherwise be treated as dull statistics. Or, to use his own slogan, “Unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view.”

    The distinctive features of Rosling’s presentations—the animation, the blobs of colour (bubble graphs), and the rest—did not arrive overnight. Years ago, when he began thinking how to make data more appealing, he relied on overhead transparencies with one sheet laid on another. Hardly sophisticated. Computerisation was clearly the remedy, but what did he know about it? “Zero,” he says, in a tone more triumphant than apologetic.

    After the 1992 UN …

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