Design Thursday: Gapminder's (and Google's) Revolutionary Design for Data

As anyone who's ever dipped into, say, the United Nations' statistical databases knows all too well, the presentation of data is in dire need of a design makeover. With its ant-sized type and near-infinite columns of bland-on-bland numbers, the UN's statistical tables—in fact, probably all statistical tables—are impenetrable to all but the most relentless of data-miners. And yet, in an eye-opening presentation at last week's Connecting'07 design conference in San Francisco, Hans Rosling proved that it doesn't have to be that way.

Rosling's Trendalyzer software, developed by his adult children and recently acquired by Google, takes the UN's demographic stats (among many other sources) and magically transforms them into brilliantly hued, moving animations that instantly convey global trends in mortality rates, income distribution, and much, much more. Along the way, he demonstrates that our notions of the "developing world" are only about 40 years out of date—thanks in part to the fact that few of us have had the forbearance to seriously delve into the data.

Take, for example, the myth that the world is sharply divided between "Us" (the "Western World," where families are small and lives are long) and "Them" (the "Third World," where families are large and lives are short). Rosling, who plotted the average life expectancy and family size for every country in the world, shows that this conventional view of the world is correct—if you're looking at 1962 data.

But with a click, Rosling brings the data to life, and brilliant bubbles (representing countries) float across his graph. As the years flash by, the gap between the industrialized and developing countries gradually closes. In the 1990s, the AIDS epidemic pulls some countries (mostly African) back into the abyss of rapidly increasing mortality rates. But by 2003, we find that we are living in an entirely new world, with the vast majority of countries clustered in the upper-left corner of the graph—where families are small and lives are long. Vietnam, for example, has the same family size and life expectancy in 2003 as the US did in 1974. Deep poverty persists, of course, but it's pockmarked across the entire planet, in places as diverse as New Orleans and Poland.

If we don't look at the data, we miss the vast social changes that have swept across Asia and the rest of the so-called developing world. Thanks to Rosling's design breakthrough, which can be viewed in all its glory at Gapminder, the data has now been gloriously brought to life.

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