Review: Gapminder Makes Statistics Fun

In putting together Monday’s post on Chile, I played around with some demographic information courtesy of Gapminder, a program I downloaded a few weeks ago. I’d been looking for an excuse to use it.

Gapminder describes itself as “unveiling the beauty of statistics for a fact based world view.” Clearly, Hans Rosling, Gapminder’s creator, is a geek. I know many people–some of them social science types–who would never use the words “beauty” and “statistics” in the same sentence. But when Rosling uses statistics, they’re more than rows of digits; the Gapminder software makes data visual on maps and charts by using color, size and position to indicate relative quantities. And as you’ll see in the video, the data can dance on your monitor, as it plays like a movie over decades or (if there’s data available) centuries.

Rosling is a frequent speaker at TED Talks and his presentations make numbers swoop and swirl as economies grow, diseases are controlled, and trends emerge. I highly recommend them if you like statistics–and even more highly if you don’t like statistics, because he just might change your mind.

I’d been thinking about reviewing Gapminder here when one of those wonderful chances occurred that, to me, illustrates what can happen when a subject just on the edge of my Circle of Knowledge intersects with the Ignorance beyond. Yesterday was World Statistics Day. Odds are you’ve never heard of World Statistics Day. I’m not just punning here; yesterday was the first-ever World Statistics Day, so most of us had never heard of it. But the United Nations uses an enormous variety of statistical data! And they wanted to celebrate it.

The United Nations Statistical Division manages demographic information for the UN. In truth, they herd cats. There are 192 member states in the UN, all of them with data to be tracked. Even if you aren’t a “numbers person” you’ve probably noticed that the ubiquity of computers and the ability to connect them via the Internet has result in amazingly huge quantities of data. Really. Many years ago, when I was still a newcomer to the online world, I remember seeing an estimate of how much data was available on the World Wide Web as a multiple of the Library of Congress‘s contents. A couple of months ago I tried to look up what the most recent estimate is, but I couldn’t find anything. Not even on Google! There’s simply so much data available online, and it’s growing so fast, that nobody tries to keep count anymore. No doubt the estimate is further complicated by the Library of Congress digitizing much of their collection; they are now part of that storehouse of electronic data.

So the United Nations tracks populations, Gross Domestic Products (GDP), poverty, disease, disaster, family structure, education… all kinds of things. And there’s the Human Development Index, created by the United Nations Development Programme, which I used to show how far Chile has advanced compared to other so-called “Third World” nations. Rosling included the HDI among the data sets in the Gapminder Desktop software, so you can graph it, map it, and compare it to any of the other data sets in Gapminder.

So you have two tasks ahead of you. First, visit Dataminder’s website and download the software. Take my word for it, this will make messing around with numbers and maps fun, even if you don’t know a moving average from a standard deviation. Then mark your calendars for the second annual World Statistics Day around this time next year. The first one slipped by without much fanfare, but I have a feeling that next time somebody will be keeping score.

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