A dream of a “fact-based worldview:” The passing of Hans Rosling


Have a few hours to kill? Gapminder is the thing for you!

For the past seven years I have used Hans Rosling’s video “200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes” as an introduction to economic development. I teach a general education course, so the students have varying levels of comfort with data and economics. The video has always generated lively discussions about development. The students talk about how we conceive of “poverty” and if a standard of living measure is sufficient. They usually on their own develop an understanding of poverty that aligns with the Human Development Index. They on their own bring up questions about access to adequate food and access to public schools and free education. We also have discussions of inequality within societies, which Rosling nicely demonstrates in his China example in the video.

Rosling passed away yesterday and it is a great loss for many communities of practice, including the government information world. He worked to promote a fact-based worldview through his TED talks and the development of Gapminder. His aim in all of these endeavors was to make data accessible to everyone as a protection against ignorance. His videos provide a entree into world where data is used to ask questions and test hypotheses rather than just support opinions.

If you aren’t familiar with Rosling, I encourage you to watch his videos, especially his most famous TED talk (below). He was a visionary and, in this world of alternative facts, he will be missed.

The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Finished: Jan. 17
Rating: A-

I have to admit I sometimes enjoy a good epidemiological history. Johnson’s account of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Victorian London is engaging, but the focus isn’t so much cholera as the larger challenges of urban living. Within the vein of epidemiological history, I preferred Marilyn Chase’s The Barbary Plague in which she describes the development of the bubonic plague in Victorian San Francisco from 1900-1909. Of course she had a larger event to describe so the focus stayed solidly on the plague. Johnson’s account seems a bit more scattered, but it reads well. His descriptions of the city and its…um…untidiness are strong enough that you feel like you could be standing (and smelling) in the middle of Soho. He is able to balance his narrative elements against his description of the cholera virus and medical aspects of the story.

As someone who enjoys the beauty of data visualization this book is a good look into the gathering of real life data and the illumination of a problem through the visualization of the data. Unfortunately, the idea of the ghost map felt a bit perfunctory like it was tacked on to the end of the story. Also, his epilogue, on the difficulties and triumphs of modern urban living in relation to sustainability, disease, and nuclear weapons while a fascinating read seem to take the focus away from his original story (and from the ghost map again). Overall it is a good read, especially if you like medical histories.