Hans Rosling interview: ‘No visualisation beats the football league table’

Hans Rosling is co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation: a not-for-profit organisation which created the infographic software Trendalyzer.

The software converts international statistics into moving, interactive graphics, and in 2007 it was purchased by Google.

Voted as one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2012, Rosling gives talks to world leaders on global development and the future of humankind using data visualisations. These can be viewed freely on the Gapminder site, as he aims to make demographic information more accessible to the general public.

When you joined Gapminder, it was just you, your son and your daughter-in-law. What was it like working alongside your family members?

First it was actually my son and my daughter-in-law, then it was no one and then it was me. Too many people see the situation and just assume it will have been the old man that started it. I am not the main person involved in developing data visualisation tools, I am just the test driver!

Which visualisation are you most proud of creating, and why?

The static double logarithmic bubblegraph: this allows you to visualize a data set with two to four dimensions. The first two dimensions are visualised as coordinates, the third as color and the fourth as size. This is in fact the only visualisation I ever created: all the others and all animations were created by Anna and Ola.

What do you believe the key is to making a data visualisation something that has impact?

Weather reports on TV are probably the most successful visualisations, because all the data published everyday in papers does not use visualisations apart from some linegraphs for stockprice. But I don’t think anything can beat the football league table.

How did Google’s acquisition of Trendalyzer transform your career?

Google acquired Trendalyzer from the Gapminder Foundation in 2007. For me personally it meant that I could stop working as professor and swap full time to Gapminder. For my son, Ola, and his wife, Anna, I think it was more of one professional step.

Who is the most impressive person you have ever met?

My wife Agneta. She was my teenage love! Influence also impresses me, but only when that influence is well-deserved.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in launching a digital product?

It’s hard to innovate. Your ideas may not be good enough, and you might not want to work 70 hours a week for eight years at very modest pay. That’s what my son and I did.

What is next for Gapminder? Are you planning to develop more data visualisation tools in the future?

Ola is currently implementing an extensive Gapminder School project with a diversity of tools, while Anna is developing the Dollar Street, which allows you to explore where the richest and poorest households are.

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