Unexpected Truths from Dr. Hans Rosling

“Instead of explaining what we do and what we think is important if you do data visualization, I’ll just present the world for you.” Dr. Hans Rosling informed the gathered crowd at the closing keynote of Tableau Conference 2014.

Everyone familiar with Dr. Rosling, and the Gapminder Foundation he created with his son and daughter-in-law, knew we were in for an experience that would leave us rich in knowledge and charged with an energy to use data to change the world.

He kicked things off with a quiz. Dr. Rosling reminded us that-- while the tools and skills required for data analysis are improving every day, it is vital to ask questions to understand the impacts of our work on the world. “Being a naughty professor, I’m allowed." He proceeded to walk the crowd through a series of questions and collect data with response devices scattered throughout the audience.

Dr. Rosling pointed out the answers with his analogue cursor.

Always the clever presenter, Dr. Rosling used the audience’s answers to help confront biases. Many of the audience responses were far from the truth despite having access to the data and trends, he pointed out this was because we are hampered by a biased view of the past.

"We’re actually building a car in Stockholm that I’m going to drive with a huge rear mirror and then I have to lean around to see the windscreen to explain the problem when we look at the world."

Rosling delivered a hefty series of facts that challenge our preconceptions:

  • The number of children in the world has stopped increasing.
  • Exponential population growth is a thing of the past, since 1960 it’s linear.
  • Decreasing child mortality precedes a decrease in babies per woman.
  • Decreasing fertility rates precedes economic growth.
  • Poor gender equity in families is responsible for decreased fertility rates in modern societies.
  • 83% of the kids in the world get the 5 basic vaccines.

Dr. Rosling used another analogue tool to reveal how the population will continue to grow despite the fact that we’ve reached “peak children.”

Through Dr. Rosling's insights and levity, we were reminded that analysis isn’t useful if your audience can't grasp what you’ve shown. He shared the example that one of Gapminder’s most promising new projects is called "Dollar Street." It will show a virtual street of houses numbered by their daily income to let people see and understand the difficult to grasp concept of income disparity. Dollar Street demonstrates how important it is that we move beyond visualization to concretization so more people may comprehend the data.

Rosling was a fantastic way to close out Tableau's Destination Data conference of 2014! See you next year in Las Vegas!

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