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03.17.2012

the Joy (?) of Stats

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the_Joy_of_Statistics_kihada_kreativeMention statistics to any recent graduate and you’re sure to get a cringing response. After a visit from Hans Rosling, however, you can expect a much different outcome. This lively Uppsala professor, medical doctor, public speaker, and statistician has transformed what we used to associate with dry lectures and tedious documents into animated graphics that intrigue and inform – to the delight of global development agents and geography teachers alike. He has even created a software program that allows widespread access to this educational innovation. But with the visualization of statistics, and statistics in general, comes a recurring concern: are we using and interpreting them truthfully?

the_Joy_of_Statistics_kihada

Let’s start with some facts. Hans Rosling is a professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institue in Sweden who earned his PhD for Medical Sciences after discovering and investigating an outbreak of konzo, a paralytic disease, in Nacala, Mozambique. He continued his study of the outbreak for a further two decades in remote rural areas of Africa. From there he broadened his research focus to examine the links between economics, agriculture, poverty, and health in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His subsequent involvement with aid agencies and international initiatives has won him many awards, including the Knowledge Prize from the National Encyclopaedia of Sweden (2007), The Big Debate Award from Dagens Medicine (2009), and the Gannon Award for the Continued Pursuit of Human Advancement (2010).

Perhaps the most notable facet of Rosling’s background is his focus on a fact-based worldview – a vision which he emphasizes in all of his work, including his co-authored Global Health textbook, his TEDtalks, and his new documentary, the Joy of Stats. In 2005, he and his son and daughter-in-law founded Gapminder, a non-profit organization promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, based on the principle that he sums up so eloquently in one of his speeches:

“Health cannot be bought at the supermarket. You have to invest in health. You have to get kids into schooling. You have to train health staff. You have to educate the population.”

Education meant bringing the facts – the data – to the forefront of international study. Through his research and collaboration with universities and organizations across the globe, Rosling encouraged the adoption of a worldview based on a firm foundation of internationally-recognized datasets that could be used to track both historical trends and future progress. In attempting to convey the crucial messages these statistics implicate, however, he uncovered an important key:

“Having the data is not enough – I have to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand.”

On this premise, he and the Gapminder Foundation developed Trendalyzer: the breakthrough software that converts those reliable datasets into moving, interactive graphics in order to ease and facilitate better understanding of global development. And indeed, the program’s animation of flowing bubbles and colourful maps have the remarkable effect of making statistics clear, playful, even entertaining! It allows users to create graphs that illustrate how ecological indicators (such as carbon emissions, energy use, and fossil fuel consumption) interact with and relate to social development (such as literacy, mortality rate, income, and population) over time and geographical realms. Google liked it so much, it acquired the software in 2008 to upscale and distribute, and the resulting Motion Chart Google Gadget and Public Data Explorer are currently available to download for free. Gapminder continues to maintain the accuracy and relevance of its tools and statistics as part of its mission to provide a “fact tank” basis for a better-informed worldview.

hans-roslingPhoto courtesy of postkesk

And shouldn’t our global actions and considerations be based on fact? On verifiable statistics? Knowledge is power, after all. We think yes – but we’ve also seen some rather disheartening uses and misuses of statistics. How often do we fall prey to – or as media, prey on – erroneous interpretations of seemingly solid facts? Consider Hans Rosling’s example of miscorrelation: an American afraid of heart attacks read that the Japanese ate very little fat and drank almost no wine, and had few cases of heart attacks. He also read that the French ate as much fat and drank as much wine as the Americans, but still reported fewer heart attacks. The American thus concluded that the cause for heart attacks must be speaking English. Perhaps this is an exaggerated example, but it nevertheless illustrates how statistics and information can lead to false conclusions.

We as readers must then exercise a certain degree of caution in interpreting what we read. We as media must then address our use of facts and figures. With our power to disseminate information, we assume a certain responsibility to keep as close to the truth as possible out of respect for our audience. There are so many instances in advertising and media where statistics are skewed or manipulated in favour of the source or sponsor, and it’s up to us to engage a critical stance. At Kihada, we promote kreativity and innovation, but we also uphold the trust of our clients. In designing aesthetically attractive media, like Hans Rosling’s delightful graphs, we strive to keep the stats straight so they may indeed be joyous. See for yourself, and put us to the test! You can trust Kihada with the key.

by Alison  alison@kihadaworksdesign.com

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