Interactive / Journalism

Hans Rosling proves that data need not be boring

Hans Rosling

I recently watched Hans Rosling’s programme “Don’t Panic – the Truth about Population”, where he tries to “make sense” of the population crisis.

As he says: “I’m a statistician! No! Don’t switch off!” – ergo, data can be dull if it is not presented in the right way or if it simply cannot tell a story.

Hans Rosling shows in the programme that “mankind is already doing better than you think” dealing with population crisis using a series of data visualisations.

For instance, in the example below Rosling shows the changing average number of “babies per woman” between 1963 (5) and 2012 (2.5). Each circle represents a country (the larger the circle, the larger the population) and he visualises their movement up and down the axis.

Source: BBC iPlayer

Source: BBC iPlayer

This is a brilliant way to show data – it would otherwise take a lot of explaining. Let’s look at the original data used (GapMinder, a website from Rosling, helpfully uploaded all the data used in the programme here):

This Google spreadsheet from GapMinder holds the data linking country, population, and number of babies per woman between 1800 and 2012 (if held).

I decided to use this data to look at the change over 20 years in Bangladesh and create this simple scatter graph using Google Docs. While this does document a change and could tell a story, it only shows one country. If I was to add other countries (For this I made up data for Country X and Country Y), I imagine the graph would start to look cluttered:


Now, imagine if you have dozens of countries on there. Not pretty and not informative. This graph still doesn’t take into account the population size of the countries.

Isn’t Hans Rosling a genius for making it look so simple and approachable? I definitely think so!

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