The best stats you’ve ever seen – Hans Rosling (TED talk)

Designing a new course for some of the brightest students in Sweden, Hans Rosling was worried they may already know everything that could be taught. So he decided to ask some pre-course questions, starting with: which of these pairs has the highest child mortality rate?

  • Sri Lanka or Turkey
  • Poland or South Korea
  • Malaysia or Russia
  • Pakistan or Vietnam
  • Thailand or South Africa

A reasoning for these pairings was that one of the pair has twice the mortality rate of the other. Therefore the vast difference means that the uncertainty of the data is not an issue.

Answers: Turkey, Poland, Russia, Pakistan, South Africa.

Turns out there was no need to be concerned about the course material, the students got an average of 1.8 answers right. Chimpanzees get 2.5.

Even more illuminating, Rosling ran the test with the professors of the medical institute, and they got 2.4 – just less than the Chimpanzees!

Since 1962 we’ve had very good data about the size of families, and the life expectancy rate, in every country of the world. The students joining the class said they expected to see a major split between ‘us and them’ in the statistics – that there is still a gap between the Western World, and the rest, in that the West has small families and long life, and the rest have large families and short lives.

The data from 1962 confirmed this.

Then Hans Rosling presses play on his graph, which goes year by year until now, and it’s one of the best live displays of statistics you’ll see.

Within four decades we have a completely new world, with most countries living in the top left (small families, long life).

The United States and Vietnam make a good comparison. They start at opposite ends of the graph in 1962, but by 2003 they are equal with the same average life expectancy and the same family size. Family planning at the end of the war, and the adoption of capitalism (after ditching communism) brought this about in rapid time.

Rosling argues that we no longer have a divide between rich and poor. In 1970 the poorest in the world lived in Asia. Now that’s not the case, and distribution of wealth has moved along the graph, in that most people no longer live in poverty. A very interesting visual display.

It seems that you can accelerate much faster if you start by fixing health issues first, than by having wealth first.

This is ultimately a talk about big data before the term big data really took off. Hans Rosling asks why we don’t use such important data that is available from the UN, national statistics agencies, and so on. It’s all stored in databases, but policy makers are not using it effectively.

Conclusion: an outstanding talk.

(Part of TED a day for June)


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