A Tribute to Hans Rosling

If you’ve never seen one of the Hans Rosling TED talks on video, you might take a few minutes to do so now.  His best known is probably his first, “The best stats you’ve ever seen.”

Using what might otherwise be somewhat dry data about income and GDP, life expectancy, population growth and child mortality, he spent decades showing people what the rest of the world was like and, more importantly, how it differed from their preconceptions.

Hans Rosling passed away on February 7th at age 68.  He was much beloved in the world of data and statistics as a self-described “edutainer” using humor and unique means of visualization in his lectures, making them into a sort of gameshow, including props like boxes, stacking cups, and home appliances, and sword-swallowing.  Yes, sword-swallowing.  He took the role of an affable “Nutty Professor,” by way of Stockholm, all to make what he saw as indispensable data accessible.

His most widely-known achievement is no doubt Gapminder.org, a non-profit and accompanying website he developed with his son and daughter-in-law in 2007.  They aspire to fight against “devastating misconceptions about international global development.”  The website features an online, fully-functional version of the data visualization tool that Hans uses in his first TED video, but now with data running up to 2015.  If you enjoy playing with dataviz tools as much as we do, you can easily sink hours into it.

Hans’ life’s goal seemed to be making the world a better place, by making it a smaller place.  After all, it’s harder to demonize, and easier to empathize, with people that you feel you know.

I’ll end with an article – a eulogy of sorts – by Swedish writer Peter Fällmar Andersson who met and interviewed Hans only once, but he wrote what his daughter said was the most accurate description of Hans’ life she’d ever read, and it’s entitled (translated from the original Swedish), “This is how we let Hans Rosling rest in peace.”  It was important to Hans not that he was famous, but that he was ultimately listened to.

You’ll be missed by humanity, Hans.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Hans Rosling was said to be unable to deliver bad news.

That is a misconception.

Three years before passing away, he remarked that the one thing that had surprised him the most during his tenure as a global educator was that he became so famous – despite having so little influence over people’s real knowledge. He realized he was stuck in ”persona hell”, and that people remained ignorant at a level worse than random guessing when they took Gapminder’s tests. Not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of “an actively upheld ignorance”.

He had discovered that people actively had set their minds to remaining ignorant.

Hans Rosling had devoted decades to try to throw out our Tintin-like perspective, but kept on having to say ”wrong, wrong, wrong” when the Swedish people answered the question of how many children are born per woman in Bangladesh.

So how do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By forgetting that he sometimes swallowed swords in a heavy metal style tank top.

And by remembering that mothers in Bangladesh no longer give birth to five children on average, nor four, but TWO POINT TWO children.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By forgetting that he got more clicks than Lady Gaga online.

And by remembering that 80 percent of the children of the world now have access to the most important and most cost efficient of all vaccines: the one for measles.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By forgetting that Time Magazine put him on some list.

And by remembering that Hans Rosling was certain that the world, if it got its act together, can reach the goal that the United Nations set for the year 2030: to exterminate extreme poverty for everyone, everywhere.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By forgetting that he was a “data rock star” at the lecture network website Ted.

And by remembering that life expectancy globally has skyrocketed, and now averages 72 years.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By forgetting false quotes, distributed by people who want everything for the world but Rosling’s humanism.

And by remembering that he spoke of the refugees on the Mediterranean by saying: “Send a ferry to help them over, instead of saving them when they are about to drown”.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By forgetting that he once competed in “På spåret”, one of Sweden’s oldest and most popular game shows.

And by remembering that Hans Rosling, the man, was a result of a political struggle that created a nation built on social security, that made it possible for him – who grew up in a home without a flushable toilet – to be the first in his family to study at a higher level. His dad worked in a coffee factory, his mother as an assistant at a library. And that he, thanks to that same nation state, was able to receive his first cancer treatment as a father of small children, at age 30. And that the treatment gave him another 38 years to live.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

By – hesitantly – forgetting that he once turned some colleagues down when they wanted him to take part in a student comic theater celebration: “got no time. gotta stop ebola. get something online.”

And by remembering that Hans Rosling sometimes was mistaken, or drew the wrong conclusions.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?

Perhaps by following his example, and whisper a quick “thank you” when turning on the water faucet, to get clean, fresh, healthy water.

In the spirit and hope of his heavenly harmony, may we finally understand what his Lego blocks, his graphical bubbles and Swenglish accent were all about:

We hold our destiny in our own hands.

Translation from Swedish: Andreas Ekström








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