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Hans Rosling Brings Life, Humor, Sword-Swallowing to Global Health Statistics

March 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Hans Rosling, co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, visualizes global health trends and population numbers -- transforming dry poverty and development statistics into Internet sensations. In addition to his focus on the developing world and data visualization, the Swede happens to swallow swords. Ray Suarez reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the man who turned global health and population numbers into an Internet sensation.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: Amid the glitter of a black-tie fund-raiser in New York City, a downright un-glittery guest made his way into the room.

Dr. Hans Rosling, a Swedish global health professor, was given a humanitarian award at the annual Action Against Hunger gala and was the night’s star attraction.

WOMAN: Tonight, you are going to hear from one of the world’s most inspired thinkers.

So, ladies and gentlemen, will you join me in giving Hans Rosling a very warm welcome.

(APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Over the last five years, this unassuming professor has collected millions of fans around the world with a usually un-glitzy topic: statistics.

DR. HANS ROSLING, Professor of International Health: $1,000, $10,000, $100,000, the difference in income per person in the world is two zeros.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Rosling’s goal for the evening and the focus of his life’s work was to wow his audience and teach it something.

He brings to life global health and development statistics, often dense and inaccessible, using a sophisticated visualization software he and his team created.

DR. HANS ROSLING: Because what do we have on the axis? Here, we have the number of children per woman, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, large families, small families. And here we have the child mortality, this most tragic marker of the quality of life in a society.

The size of the bubble is the population. This is China. This is India. Look here, low child mortality, small families. High child mortality, large families. What has happened? Here we come. China is very successful there, India coming there, Indonesia. Look here. This is Brazil. This is Mexico coming here. This is Indonesia. This is Bangladesh. Bangladesh is catching up with India. They’re overtaking India.

Africa is falling down. And now we see some are delayed here, but almost the entire world is here. It’s a completely new world.

RAY SUAREZ: The presentation is one he’s been giving audiences at conferences and meetings around the world since he became an Internet phenom in 2006.

That’s when a lecture he gave at the annual TED conference, a who’s-who gathering of high-tech, design and entertainment leaders, was posted online and quickly went viral.

DR. HANS ROSLING: My students, what they said when they looked upon the world, and I asked them what do you really think about the world, and they said the world is still we and them. And we is Western world and them is Third World.

And, what do you mean with the Western world, I said. Well, that’s long life and small family. And Third World is short life and large family. So, this is what I could display here. I put fertility rate here, number of children per woman, one, two, three, four, up to about eight children per woman. Here, I put life expectancy at birth, from 30 years in some countries up to about 70 years.

Are the students right? It’s still two types of country? Here we go. Can you see there? It’s China. They’re moving against better health. They’re improving there. Or the green, that’s in American countries. They are moving towards smaller families. The yellow ones here are the Arabic countries. And they get larger families.

RAY SUAREZ: Over three million people have now watched this talk online.

DR. HANS ROSLING: And all the rest of the world moves up into the corner, where we have long lives and small family, and we have a completely new world.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Rosling’s subsequent online TED talks have also been watched by millions.

I sat down with Hans Rosling during his recent visit to New York to talk about his method and maybe learn a little in the process myself.

Did it occur to you at some point that these lessons you’re teaching had to be taught in a better way for people to understand them better?

DR. HANS ROSLING: Yeah, because obviously people do not understand some basic facts.

You see, I find holes, deep black holes of ignorance. And now I try to fill them. That means there are things which are facts, which we know, which still doesn’t enter their head — there are actually less children per woman in Brazil, Thailand and Iran than in Sweden. But it doesn’t — they still have a view of the world that is 25 years old.

RAY SUAREZ: Rosling got his start in global health practicing medicine in rural Mozambique in the 1970s.

While there, he discovered and treated patients with a new paralytic disease he called konzo. He’s now chairman of the Gapminder Institute, which is dedicated to building a fact-based world view that everyone understands.

In addition to his popular animated software, which was acquired by Google, Rosling likes to use other visual aids to help him convey information about the world we live in — Ikea boxes to explain population growth and a washing machine to illustrate how the lives and health of poor women and their families are drastically improved by the device.

DR. HANS ROSLING: So there must be one, two, three, four billion people more will live in between the poverty line and the air line. They have electricity. But the question is, how many have washing machines?

I’ve done the scrutiny of market data and I have found that indeed the washing machine has penetrated below the air line, and today there’s an additional one billion people up there who live above the wash line.

(LAUGHTER)

DR. HANS ROSLING: And they consume for more than $40 per day. So two billion have access to washing machine and the remaining five billion, how do they wash? They wash like this, by hand. It’s a hard, time-consuming labor. And they want the washing machine.

RAY SUAREZ: During our conversation, he used LEGO characters to represent all humankind.

DR. HANS ROSLING: Look here. This is one billion people. There’s one billion people in Africa. There’s one billion people in Europe, one billion people in America.

And, as you know, we are seven. So, all the rest, one, two, three and four, are in Asia. This is the world population. And we know, beyond doubt, that there will be two billion more before we level off around nine to 10. And those two billion, we also know that one will be in Africa and one will be in Asia.

And any CEO of a big company looking, like, they say, wow, that’s where the market is.

Believe me, there’s nothing boring about statistics.

RAY SUAREZ: In 2010, the BBC aired a documentary about Rosling’s work called “The Joy of Stats.” Using some high-tech special effects, the production team was able to show his animations in real space.

DR. HANS ROSLING: So, down here is poor and sick. And up here is rich and healthy, Europe brown, Asia red, Middle East green, and the size of the country bubble show the size of the population.

RAY SUAREZ: Can you almost feel when the lights are going on, when people are saying, aha?

DR. HANS ROSLING: Yes, we have.

But it’s also — you have to check after a year if it’s still there. And the old concept of the Western world and developing world is very strong. And it’s also because it’s sort of frightening. People think it’s frightening with this Asia and Africa here.

No, these are customers. These are partners. And prosperity in the rest of the world means more peace. The U.S. armed forces doesn’t have to make so many interventions in the world if we have less conflict. So it’s sort of a new vision about the world we must have.

DR. HANS ROSLING: The bubbles are the countries. Here, you have the fertility rate.

RAY SUAREZ: Rosling says he is going to continue talking about important global health statistics whenever and wherever he can.

Like many successful entertainers and plenty of great teachers, Rosling knows that, once he’s got your attention, he can pull out something unexpected.

DR. HANS ROSLING: Bring me my sword.

RAY SUAREZ: In this case, another passion: sword-swallowing.

DR. HANS ROSLING: And I will now prove to you that the seemingly impossible is possible by taking this piece of steel, solid steel, and push it down through my body of blood and flesh, and prove to you that the seemingly impossible is possible.

Can I request a moment of absolute silence?

(DRUMROLL)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)