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Hugs and databases: in memory of Hans Rosling

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Hans Rosling in 2014. Credit: TED.

For millions of us, Swedish Professor and self-described “Edutainer” Hans Rosling opened our eyes to a world we live in, but had never seen before .

Professor Rosling, who passed away last week was best known for his theatrical presentations that brought data to life with stories and visualizations which he hoped would change people’s mindsets and improve their understanding of the world.

Rosling, trained as a statistician and physician in the late 1970s, spent two decades studying outbreaks of konzo in rural areas across Africa. It was only in the 2000s he turned his attention to another type of disease - one which prevents knowledge locked away in datasets from being put to work for the public good.

He called it “Database Hugging Disorder” or “DBHD.” And the World Bank, along with other development organizations, had a chronic case of it.

Hans’ relationship with the Bank was initially adversarial. At the time, the institution’s business model for data relied on selling subscriptions to databases to fund their production. While of great interest, access to most of the Bank’s data was limited to those who could afford to pay for it.

Rosling’s quest to set data free was always a family affair. His son Ola and Ola’s wife Anna once joined him on a trip to DC to meet Shaida Badiee - then head of the Bank’s Data Group. Anna tells me they’d gone to discuss ways of making more of the Bank’s data freely available, but that the conversation turned to better ways of presenting data.

Hans asked Anna to show off some new animated bubble charts she and Ola had been working on. “Her eyes went wide,” said Anna, “Shaida got up and just hugged me with joy.”  In all the time she’d worked with development data, Shaida tells me she’d never seen anything that helped bring it to life like that. She immediately offered to make the Banks’ data available to Hans’ team if the Bank could make use of the bubble charts on its own website. Hans’ response? No deal. The data should be freely available for everyone to use.

In the years leading up to 2010, Rosling’s reputation and influence grew and the calls for the Bank to open up its data became louder. Shaida and Bank’s then president Robert Zoellick, along with dozens of other colleagues, saw the potential of Hans’ ideas and became champions for the cause. In April 2010, the World Bank launched its open data initiative. Rosling, speaking shortly afterwards joked again about DBDH saying “I congratulate deeply the World Bank for having cleared itself completely from this disorder.”

I met Hans several times over the years and always enjoyed our discussions - in between his irreverent and engaging explanations, he was always quick to give credit to the Bank’s Data Group in his talks and encouraged other organizations to open up their data like we did.

I asked Shaida about the last time she saw him - the one time adversary who’d helped trigger a revolution in the development data world. “It was a conference in DC in the Summer of 2015,” she recalls. “He came across the room and gave me the biggest hug I think I’ve ever had.”

Hans Rosling achieved something remarkable - he changed the way individuals and institutions think about data. He brought the work of data professionals out of the shadows and showed us a way to “make statistics sing.” He proved that the best way to make data useful, is to make it free. He also left us and the Gapminder Foundation with some unfinished business:  we’ve changed the way people think about data, but now we’ve got to use data to change the way people think about the world .


Tariq Khokhar

Global Data Editor & Senior Data Scientist

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