GapMinder – vizualizations that make a difference

I was lucky enough to see a talk by GapMinder at work last week. They are a Swedish non-profit who’s raison d’etre is to make stats about the world (such as health and economic disparity) more accessible and more meaningful.
We’ve all seen GDP maps of the world and so on, but GapMinder have taken this a lot further. Take a look at the demos here. The talk/demo was centered on 2 incredibly simple ideas which blew my mind:

  1. Move beyond the average. Literally. Typical demographic comparisons will show stats based on regional or country averages. So Africa is a blip way down the bottom of the scale, and Europe and the US is way off the scale. They used a simple technique of mapping out all the countries which make up the continent as a spatial cluster. You can see how continents compare, the rough average of a continent as the centre of the cluster, but also see the incredible disparities within continents (e.g. Mauritius versus Sudan, both averaged within Africa). It ain’t a simple matter of rich (1st world) versus poor (3rd world) anymore. The poorest of Europe overlap with the richest of Africa. Things get even more complicated when you break down countries … are there any Americans as poor as the richest people in Ethiopia?
  2. Plot multiple dimensions on the same graph (look at the same graph – infant mortality against GDP). This illuminates countries with equivalent health (life expectancy) but grossly different GDPs (e.g. Cuba and USA). Hmmm, … whats going on there? And then there are countries with similar GDPs but very different life expectancies (e.g. South Africa and Poland).

Fascinatingly, through a simple time animation on the same axis you can track countries’ economic and political changes (e.g. China through the 20th century – first focusing on the social state with big increases in health, but not so much in GDP), and then flipping to the opposite in the 80s and 90s. Then there’s also Iran doing a spiral in the 20th century in terms of birth rate as the ayatollahs slipped in and out of power. Great stuff! You can see the full talk here on Google Video

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2 Responses to GapMinder – vizualizations that make a difference

  1. Joe McCarthy says:

    Speaking of statistics, politics, economics and gaps, there was an interesting [and free!] article recently in the Wall Street Journal online edition on “Minding the Gap”: http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB114182443308492484.html?mod=todays_free_feature

  2. Joe McCarthy says:

    Oops — forgot to provide a litle more context:

    Who’s getting ahead, who’s falling behind, and why?

    They are questions that grip us in fits and starts. Author Douglas Coupland worried in his 1991 novel “Generation X” about “Brazilification,” or the widening gulf between rich and poor and the disappearance of the middle class, but much of that anxiety faded by the late 1990s as workers benefited from a long-running expansion. Then the tech bubble burst, and by 2004 Democrat John Edwards was able to campaign for president on the argument that there are “two Americas” — one for the ultrarich, and one for everyone else.

    To what extent should we be worried about the distribution of economic gains? The Wall Street Journal Online asked economists Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Russell Roberts of George Mason University to debate to what degree inequality exists, and just how much it matters for the economy and society.

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