Dancing with development data

Ooooh. Look at all the pretty developmental economic pictures.

Published July 28, 2006 7:54PM (EDT)

Watching Hans Rosling lecture about international development trends is an experience akin to hanging out stoned at your local planetarium's midnight Pink Floyd laser show. Lots of pretty colors. Strange shapes bubble and slither across projected screens. Amazing insights into the distribution of health and wealth across the globe flood your brain.

OK, maybe that last part doesn't happen at the planetarium, unless you're indulging in something a little stronger than THC. But when Rosling takes the podium, as he did in February at the TED Conference in Monterey, Calif., the Swedish professor of international health does some dazzling things with data. (Thanks to reader Gregor Dodson for pointing us to the video.)

The most impressive piece of legerdemain came when Rosling took all the countries of the world, represented as bubbles of varying sizes, and placed them on a graph, one axis of which represented average family size, and the other, longevity. In 1962, a relatively small group of countries, mostly the usual suspects of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, cluster at the top left -- small families, long lives. The rest of the world is grouped at the lower right -- large families, short lives.

Then Rosling starts a time-series animation, and you watch as over the next 40 years the countries in the lower right bubble their way up to join the likes of the U.S. and Europe. Sub-Saharan Africa, tragically, lags behind everyone else, but in sum, as Rosling declares to an applauding audience, "we live in a whole new world now."

Then Rosling, who founded a nonprofit called Gapminder that aims to make the world's public databases accessible and understandable, breaks it down further. Sub-Saharan Africa cannot all be lumped in one basket. Mauritius and Ghana have strikingly different trajectories than Niger -- and the same is true for breakdowns within each country. As Rosling observes, echoing Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs and other development economists, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to development, "the improvement of the world must be highly contextualized."

It's one thing to say that with citations to dense works of economic theory and appendixes full of impenetrable tables and graphs. It's another to make the data dance and sing, and thus insinuate itself directly into your brain. Rosling is a magician. His tricks are worth watching.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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