Professor Hans Rosling, a statistician and epidemiologist who brought dramatic flair to animated visualizations of dry public health data, has died in Finland of pancreatic cancer, according to the foundation he started with his children.
For much of the public not steeped in the arcana of epidemiological data sets or data visualization techniques (a.k.a. normal people), Rosling burst onto the scene in 2010 as part of the BBC special “The Joy of Stats.” “Hans Rosling’s famous lectures combine enormous quantities of public data with a sport’s commentator’s style to reveal the story of the world’s past, present and future development,” the BBC wrote at the time.
Rosling’s dramatic rendition of an animated scatterplot on income and life expectancy has been viewed on YouTube more than 7.5 million times. Watch it and try not to get excited about the material.
Rosling’s work was a driver of some of the explosion of interest in data visualization in the news and nonprofit sectors starting in the early 2000s. His BBC special and TED Talks sparked an interest in “storytelling with data,” rather than just with words.
As someone working in the D.C. nonprofit space circa 2011, Rosling’s influence was everywhere. “Bubble charts,” as his animated scatterplots became known, were held up as the gold standard of communicating with numbers. It seemed like every researcher with a fresh data set wanted to put it in a bubble chart and watch it dance.
But not every data set tells as clear or compelling a story as Rosling’s wealth and life expectancy numbers. Rosling’s genius wasn’t just in the flashy presentations he gave. It also derived from knowing exactly what type of data would lend itself to such flair. I must have put at least 99 different data sets into animated chart frameworks like Rosling’s scatterplot. Most of them just wiggled and twitched aimlessly. Very few of them moved with any purpose.
The other thing Rosling’s moving chart did incredibly well was to allow viewers to grapple with multiple dimensions simultaneously, with ease. In one video, below, the chart contains five dimensions of data: income (x-axis), lifespan (y-axis), population (circle size), geography (circle color) and time (movement). As you watch it, with his narration, you don’t even realize you’re processing information along so many different vectors – it all just makes sense.
Part of the measure of success for Rosling’s work is that you can see work inspired by him just about anywhere now, from news stories to executive Powerpoints. In 2007, working at a wonky D.C. think tank, I was discouraged from creating a simple, non-moving scatterplot because “people wouldn’t know how to read it.” Today, most people wouldn’t give such a chart a second thought.
The loss of Rosling hurts especially in this moment, as politicians and media outlets wrestle over what’s fake and what’s real. Above all Rosling was an advocate for a “fact-based worldview,” one which his family says they’ll carry on at the foundation he started.