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This is essentially the question asked and answered by Hans Rosling at a recent TED lecture.

For those that don’t know him, Rosling is something of a superstar at the intersection of public health research and data visualization.  Rosling’s recent work focuses on dispelling the misconception that there is a binary distinction between the developed and developing worlds.  While Rosling is not the first to argue against this dichotomy (and all its political ramifications), his approach is both fascinating and affective.  Rosling utilizes an impressive visualization tool–that he developed and Google bought–to present data on the progress of the developing and developed worlds in a relational manner.  The video below was shot in June of 2009 at a TED-sponsored talk at the US State Department.

Rosling’s presentation drove home two points for me: the importance of challenging our assumptions, the impact of data visualization, and the power of relational data.

  1. Too often we take for granted what the facts are around a given issue. What was true yesterday may not be true today; however, what was true yesterday undoubtedly contributes to our mindset today and the prism through which we view today’s issue. How does one combat this characteristic of human perception? The review of data. We should be challenging our assumptions, testing them against meticulously collected data to ensure that what we once that of as conventional wisdom still applies. If not, change it.
  2. How data is visualized can have as big an affect on helping us to alter our views. The data Rosling relies on is not new or proprietary (heck, I used some of it when I lectured on the political economy of development). What is innovative and impactful is how we presents the data.  Rosling’s software visualizes the data in a way that is more powerful than simply providing a list of child mortality rates or the percent change over time for each country.  It allows him to tell a story, to weave a narrative which connects the audience to the data in a way a regular bar chart or data table simply could not do.
  3. The most powerful way to visualize data is relationally.  Rosling’s visualizations make full use of this principle, presenting country data relative to other countries as well as across time.

When I think of the difference a datadriven world can and will make, it is this–the ability to view the world and make decisions in a fact-based manner.  We can better separate the wheat from chaff, signal from noise.  We can make our mind set match our data set.  And we are just scratching the service.

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