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July 2015

Hans Rosling: Upgrading our worldview via data visualization

Data and information are not inherently boring. The key is to select the appropriate (and accurate) data to support your message. Yet, it also matters how you bring the data alive, giving it context and meaning. One of the masters of displaying data in live talks is Swedish medical doctor and researcher, Hans Rosling, whom I've talked about often on this site and in my books (we were both keynoters at Tableau 2014 in Seattle as well; he's a wonderful man). His latest short presentation was posted this week and it's a great reminder of how to present a visualization in a simple, clear, and engaging way. Back in the US, a certain presidential candidate made quite a ruckus when he said some inflammatory things that, to put it mildly, may not be an accurate representation regarding the economic and social vitality of the country of Mexico. Given the media fracas, Dr. Rosling must have thought this was as good a time as any to shine a little data-visualization light on just how much Mexico has changed over the last couple of generations. For many, the change may be surprising.

Take your time, set up the visualization
Dr. Rosling consistently does something that few presenters ever do. That is, he takes the time to set-up for his audience the display of his data before revealing the actual visualization to them. Most people show everything all at once—without ever pointing out what we should look for or explaining the variables—and rush to their conclusion about what they say the data shows without us ever getting a chance to really see it with our own eyes. Note, however, here how Dr. Rosling introduces the problem and what he'll be measuring. One way he often compares the progress of countries is by measuring the change over time of the variables life expectancy (in years) and family size (number of babies per woman). He explains the horizontal and vertical axes. He then explains the starting point and gives context, pointing out the dramatic difference between the US and Mexico in 1968. Then he says, "now, I'll show you what has happened." Dr. Rosling recommends explaining the meaning of movement as it is happening (see more tips by Hans Rosling here.)

These are not the only variables one could use, of course, but it gives us one window into a problem. A single chart or visualization will not tell the whole story, but even this one measure gives us an illuminating glimpse
Rosling mixing analog & digital techniques