Telling Stories with Data

Hans Rosling recently passed away. Rosling was a Swedish physician, statistician and speaker famous for his work with world health and developmental issues. He is probably best known for for a TED Talk he gave called “The best stats you’ve ever seen

In the talk we witness Rosling talking on the developing world and their health outcomes over time. At least that is topic of his talk. Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the talk is how he presents the data and his findings. Data in the form of tables and charts provides information that I might be allow me to make decisions. But there is something missing between information and decision and that is understanding. Rosling uses data visualization to bridge that gap.

He starts by showing a sample of data comparing fertility rate and life expectancy for all countries where that data collected. His displays this on a bubble chart the axis are fertility rate and life expectancy. The size of the bubble is the county’s population and the color is the country’s location. The chart shows the world as it existed in 1962. You might expect him to continue by showing a number of slides at various points in time to show how fertility and life expectancy are related. Instead, after explaining the starting point of the chart in detail, he puts the chart into motion. Each frame is a new year and you literally see how a country’s well being changes with events. He points to changes in Bangladesh and the AID’s crisis in Africa as examples of how events and decisions affect outcomes. Rosling’s presentation is clear and entertaining. It presents an enormous amount of information in a short time. The way the information is presented takes the viewer from preconceived ideas to understanding and awareness in a short time.

This type of presentation is key to successful decision making. For people to make informed decisions they need information. That information is trapped in data. Being an engaging storyteller, like Hans Rosling, communicates meaning. Show me the numbers, but do it in a way that bridges the gap between information and decision, the insight gap. Use an age-old method, a method that we’ve used since people first gathered around fires at night – tell me a story.

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