Hans Rosling has become the totemic leader of data visualisation on the web and tomorrow he hits the big time as the star of a TV programme on statistics.
Surely a BBC programme about statistics is a first - albeit on BBC4 not BBC1! Perhaps, but it will not be the last, as on Thursday this week, the BBC is showing “The beauty of diagrams” telling the story of Florence Nightingale and her work in the 1850s which is widely acclaimed to have led to cleaner hospitals and a sharp fall in deaths from disease. Is data really becoming mainstream entertainment?
Rosling is an unlikely internet hit – as a Swedish professor of international health in his 60s he is no trendy young geek. But he does have charisma and he was (with his son’s help!) an early developer of some ground-breaking technology which was sold to Google. He is funny but also deadly serious.
That said, bringing “statistics” to a wider audience is a big ask. I’ve always thought statistics to be fascinating and of great importance, for individuals and societies, but most people just don’t get it. Statistics, numbers, data – all that stuff – are thought to be tricky, hard, pointless, dull, or lies and damned lies.
As more and more data – just think of it as a form of information - becomes available and increasingly important in making life choices, our lives will change. Societies and individuals that ignore it will be disadvantaged. People generally don’t last long if they fail to look left and right before crossing a road. And most people will look at prices and might compare them (sort of data from a sort of survey?) before buying something – price comparison web sites are a great hit. And people have long looked at weather records before packing for a foreign holiday. But technology has led to a proliferation of new data sources – it is now easy to look at a school’s record before enrolling your child, or a surgeon’s record before going under the knife.
Despite the fact that being armed with such information can be helpful, many people will still resist. To be fair, data was often hard to find and nigh on impossible to manipulate, let alone visualise. This is where Rosling and the movement he is part of comes to the fore. If more people can access the increasing quantities of data, it can improve the choices that individuals, companies and governments make. A decade ago there were many barriers to engagement with data but they are falling – and fast.
Rosling is great as are others featured in this programme, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Timetric’s vision is part of this trend too. We are bringing public data to anyone who wants it! We currently have over 2 million time series from a wide variety of sources that can be charted and downloaded. We were delighted to be part of the launch of getstats, the numeracy campaign recently launched by the Royal Statistical Society - and where this TV programme was previewed.
In short, watch this programme and tell your friends about it! Better understanding of our world is a valuable goal and this programme will edge us in that direction. I find it hard to believe that many people will watch the programme without getting something from it! Like Rosling, the topic is fun but also deadly serious.
‘The Joy of Stats’ is on BBC4 at 9pm, Tuesday 7th December.
If you want more of Rosling, go to his Gapminder site.