Weekend Wandering 9: Are you a Gapminder?

GapminderWhat is it about Sweden and global development statistics? I remember first learning of the Demographic Transition model based on birth and death data from a village in Sweden dating back to 1749. Now, along comes Hans Rosling who is perhaps the most important statistician alive today. He is media savvy as evidenced by his numerous TED Talk appearances. But more importantly, he spreads a message of hope for the world that everyone else is missing. As the TED website says:

In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings.

HansRoslingYou may know of Hans Rosling from the animated bubble charts he walks you through like a sportscaster. If you’re a geographer and you haven’t heard of him, then you must – right now – watch this 10min TED Talk: Global population growth, box by box. It’s classic Hans Rosling and perhaps his most memorable video. But there’s more – much more.

In an effort to reduce world ignorance about statistics, data and how the world has changed, Hans Rosling and his son Ola, have co-founded the Gapminder Foundation. At their website you will find a number of up-to-date videos, animations and resources for better understanding how data is used constructively to show how the world is changing. If you’re an educator, then have a look at the downloadable teachers’ resources: 200 years that changed the world and  the Quiz about Global Development.

What is particularly interesting is their work in Ignorance with the Ignorance Project. Interestingly, they are using an icon of a chimpanzee. If you watch one of their TED Talk videos, you’ll know why. Basically, they ask intelligent people basic, multiple choice questions about the world and compare their answers to the reality. What becomes instantly apparent is how our knowledge of the world, based on our own personal biases and reinforced by media bias, has given us a rather distorted view of the world, so we are, in fact, out-performed by chimpanzees. Hans Rosling makes his point in this short YouTube clip from a Swedish or Danish television discussion (with English subtitles): Don’t use the media to understand the world. This is supported by data he presents in the TED Talk – How not to be ignorant about the world – where the media score no better than the rest of the public on basic world facts.

But there’s much more (I know, this is sounding like a late-night TV infomercial!) Gapminder has made available in their Downloads section, the Gapminder World Offline version for Mac, Windows and Linux. This will let you and your students “play” with the data – a perfect way for it to come alive in the classroom generating discussion and critical thinking. These are the animated bubble charts I referred to earlier, made famous by Hans Rosling’s ground-breaking TED Talk way back in 2006: The best stats you’ve ever seen. Call me a GeoGeek, but I can still remember watching that video for the first time and being amazed at how the same data and concepts I had been teaching for 15 years suddenly came alive. I couldn’t wait to show my classes and colleagues they next day.

Alternatively, you can go to the Gapminder World page and play with the data directly. The landing page shows the Wealth and Health of Nations, but you can select other charts under “Open Graph Menu” or you can directly choose x- and y-axes to create statistical comparisons. There is also a Map view for visualizing trends in one data point over time for geographic countries and regions. Powerful stuff!

Gapminder-CanadaOne trick I’ve just discovered… In Chart mode you can select “Play” to watch how the data changes over time. Run it through once then drag the time slider back to the start. Now here’s the cool part… Before selecting Play again, select a country: hover your cursor over a bubble to reveal the name. Once you’ve found the country you’re looking for, click on it. Now hit “Play” and you can watch the “trail” that country makes through time. I selected “Canada” and what becomes instantly apparent is the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 (and the end of WWI) and the effects of the Great Depression on incomes in the early 1930s. Very powerful stuff!

I’ve posted this as a Weekend Wandering because it’s the kind of website that just might capture your interest for a few hours. Being a holiday weekend (here in North America, anyway), you can spend your Labour Day Monday delving into the world of Gapminder – Enjoy!

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