The first order of business was to pull a slip of paper from a bowl—my fictional persona for the evening. I was Enrique, a 40 year-old farmer in Guatemala, who recently bought a cow with money he received from Mercy Corps (which sponsors the Action Center). I don’t look or sound anything like an Enrique, but I was willing to play along. Almost immediately I learned that “playing along” included sitting on the floor for the event. My slip of paper was green, identifying me as one of the roughly 50% of humanity considered “low income,” meaning they earn less than $800 per person per year.
One year ago this week, on January 12, 2010, two extraordinarily important things happened. Google announced its intention to close their office in China and shut down Google.cn, their Chinese-language search engine site. Half-way around the world, an earthquake shook Port au Prince, Haiti, to its core, killing over 220,000 people. Aside from happening on the same day, the two events share a deeper theme: they demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of information and communications technology (ICT) in the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
The reason Google left China was more complicated than an altruistic support for human rights and free speech. Yes, Sergey Brin’s family had lived in the Soviet Union before immigrating to the United States when Brin was six years old, and Brin has spoken out for freedom of speech on other occasions; but as many pointed out, China’s population of over a million is an enormous potential audience. The right to search for terms such as “Dalai Lama,” “Falun Gong,” or “Tienanmen Square” alone is not enough to make a corporation pull out of the world’s most populous nation. That debate had gone on since 2006.
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.