The ‘Edutainer’ of Data: Hans Rosling, 1948-2017

Hans Rosling
Hans Rosling in a 2009 TED talk.

Although he had an important career as a research epidemiologist and an academic, Hans Rosling’s global fame rested on two pillars: stats and hope.  Starting with a TED talk a little over a decade ago, Rosling used his insight, command of statistics, wit and a few props like bayonets and toilet tissue tubes, to explain the world’s development challenges to the developed world — and explain why these were not, in and of themselves, reasons to despair. His talks always relied on vetted data, stark visualizations and solid command of his computations – witness his 2010 BBC documentary The Joy of Stats.

Rosling died from pancreatic cancer the morning of February 7, according to the Gapminder website he founded with his son and daughter-in-law 11 years ago. He was 68.

In a thorough and entertaining profile in Nature in December, Amy Maxmen wrote:

He has become a trusted counsellor and speaker of plain truth to United Nations leaders, billionaire executives such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and politicians including Al Gore. Even Fidel Castro called on the slim, bespectacled Swede for advice. Rosling’s video lectures on global health and economics have elevated him to viral celebrity status, and he has been listed among the 100 most influential people in the world by the magazines Time and Foreign Policy.

Rosling was born and raised in Uppsala, Sweden, and studied statistics and medicine at the university there. He studied public health in India and became a licensed physician in 1976. Making good on a promise he made to the founder of the Mozambican Liberation Front – albeit kept after Eduardo Mondlane’s assassination in 1975 – Rosling and his young family moved to an independent Mozambique where he served as a district health official in an impoverished corner of that impoverished country.

Although he and his family returned to Sweden in 1981 after the death of his third child, Rosling kept an active interest in Africa and its development, returning often to the continent as a both a researcher and a mentor. His work on the disease konzo, for example, showed that insufficiently processed cassava, an African staple, abetted by extreme poverty, led to the crippling disease.

Despite his later Pollyannaish reputation, a laser-like focus on extreme poverty animated much of Rosling’s career, especially after he served in several positions at the Karolinska Institute, including chair of the Karolinska International Research and Training Committee from 1998 to 2004 and leading the Division of International Health from 2001 to 2007.

Around the turn of the millennium, his work on deciphering global health and development statistics for policymakers and capitalists gained him increasing prominence, a role that brought him to the TED stage in 2006. Around this time Gapfinder was founded to capitalize on the ‘moving bubble’ software package Trendalyzer, which Rosling’s son had built to visualize data from the United Nations and World Bank.

In 2007 the Swedish Association for Statistics named him Statistician of the Year, and since then he had accumulated a raft of other honors in Sweden and beyond, such as the grand prize from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the gold medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (both 2010) and Royal Patron´s Medal from the Royal Geographical Society of London (2014).

He wore much of this acclaim lightly, terming himself an ‘edutainer.’ As he told The Guardian in 2013:

It’s that I became so famous with so little impact on knowledge. Fame is easy to acquire, impact is much more difficult. When we asked the Swedish population how many children are born per woman in Bangladesh, they still think it’s four to five. I have no impact on knowledge. I have only had impact on fame, and doing funny things, and so on.

And he wasn’t the only one who wore this acclaim lightly; his role as a synthesizer and popularizer presenting a more pleasant future rubbed many in academe the wrong way. Such as Anne and Paul Ehrlich, who argued that Rosling was merely a modern-day Pangloss. “Rosling’s soothing assurances are analogous to a physician telling her lung cancer patient, not to worry, don’t get treatment,” the Ehrlich’s wrote for the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. “There’s lots of good news: your teeth have no cavities, your vision is excellent, and I see no symptoms of flu.” Work like Rosling’s 2015 documentary Don’t Panic: How to End Poverty in 15 Years did little to remedy such disdain.

Nonetheless, Rosling put his faith in his numbers, as the Gapminder website makes clear:

For the first time in human history reliable statistics exist. There’s data for almost every aspect of global development. The data shows a very different picture: a world where most things improve; a world that is not divided. People across cultures and religions make decisions based on universal human needs, which are easy to understand. The fast population growth will soon be over. The total number of children in the world has stopped growing. The remaining population growth is an inevitable consequence of large generations born decades back. We live in a globalized world, not only in terms of trade and migration. More people than ever care about global development! The world has never been less bad. Which doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The world is far from perfect.

A playlist of Hans Rosling TED talks.

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