I was at the second year of my PhD when my friend Rik popped up in our PhD open space, smiling as usual, and asked “Hey guys! Are you going to the lunch seminar today?”.
“Which seminar?” someone asked – while I was thinking that nothing would have been so interesting to drag me away from a good lunch, cause I was starving and the literature review was totally unhelpful in this respect.
“There’s Professor Rosling!” Rik said, “He is giving a seminar on global health or something”.
Someone else said: “Who is this guy?” and I followed “Yes, Rik, who’s Prof….?”. He looked at us, a bit astonished and a bit hurt: “Oh come on! The guy who makes all those graphs and stats on health and development! You have never heard of Gapminder, really?!”, probably thinking at us like a bunch of idiots.
He was right. We did not know who he was! Well, we postponed our lunch and went to the seminar – so I met Professor Rosling.
We had a fascinating lecture on global health. Step by step, Hans Rosling demolished any certainty about many aspects of our global society. Of that lecture, I like to remember a few things.
First, I appreciated how poor was my knowledge of apparently simple phenomena: I learned that poverty in our world was decreasing, not increasing, but that is only income poverty, while we are still trapped by a whole unfinished agenda of poverty, made by children undernourishment, low primary school completion rates, insufficient water source access, unacceptable maternal and child mortality rates. It is our responsibility to dig into data and communicate well, to our friends, colleagues or students.
Second, I learned that people, globally, have stopped having children years ago. However, this is because women empowerment has led women to be part of the decisions about their lives, together with their men, so that family planning strategies are decided less through imposition, and more through pillow-talks, moments full of intimacy and reciprocal respect.
And third, I learned that data give us confidence in our capacities to give positive messages, through the deep understanding of phenomena: in this great interview Professor Rosling explains why we cannot read the world through the eyes of media, for example, which are naturally prone to give visibility to the wrong things. Instead, and once again, we all have a responsibility in giving a correct description of the world, which also means more positive than the actual one.
Not a lot, you may think, but hey, I have learned all this in just one hour and a half!
Lots of videos and speeches of Professor Rosling are available on Gapminder and on youtube. To start, I suggest this long one, around 20 minutes of TED Talk, dated 2006, where he uses Gapminder to talk about the history of world health and development in the last decades.
Professor Rosling has taught me that the power and creativity of people can change the way we read the world and describe it, and that also numbers can be a simple tool to leave beautiful stories behind us, in a responsible, correct way.
Go to Gapminder world maps and enjoy!