He’s been called the Jedi master of data visualisation, dubbed a statistics guru and introduced as the man in whose hands data sings. When it comes to celebrity statisticians, Hans Rosling is firmly on the A-list.
In the years since his first TED talk (Stats that reshape your worldview), which thrust him into the spotlight in 2006 with millions of online views, Rosling’s now signature combination of animated data graphics and theatrical presentations has featured in dozens of video clips, a BBC4 documentary on The Joy of Stats, and numerous international conferences and UN meetings.
Instead of static bar charts and histograms, Rosling, professor of global health at Sweden‘s Karolinska Institute, has used a combination of toy bricks, cardboard boxes, teacups and vibrant, animated data visualisations to breathe life into statistics on health, wealth and population. With comic timing and a flair for the unusual, Rosling’s style has undoubtedly helped make data cool.
When Time magazine included him in its 2012 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, it said his “stunning renderings of the numbers … have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways”. However, Rosling, 64, is less convinced about his impact on how people view the world.
“It’s that I became so famous with so little impact on knowledge,” he says, when asked what’s surprised him most about the reaction he’s received. “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 4-5. I have no impact on knowledge. I have only had impact on fame, and doing funny things, and so on.”
He’s similarly nonplussed about being a data guru. “I don’t like it. My interest is not data, it’s the world. And part of world development you can see in numbers. Others, like human rights, empowerment of women, it’s very difficult to measure in numbers.”
Rosling is strikingly upfront about the limitations of data. Sometimes, the problem is that different countries measure things – like unemployment – in different ways, he says. In other cases, there are real uncertainties in the data that must be assessed: child mortality statistics are quite precise, whereas maternal mortality figures are not; global poverty measurements are infrequent and uncertain.
“That unit [at the World Bank] which assists countries, trains the staff, and helps them to compile [poverty] data, how many persons are working there? Four half-time. For the world. It’s a joke. They’re very competent, they’re very good. But it’s not serious … The uncertainty of 1.3 billion [people living in poverty] is plus or minus half a billion. And we will not know whether the MDGs [millennium development goals] have been achieved until 2019, the later part. We only get poverty measurements every fifth year.”
These issues are well known, he says, but still underappreciated and infrequently discussed. “It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, and I’m the little child saying ‘He’s nude! He’s nude!'”
Still – when handled with care – global statistics can help challenge common myths and misconceptions about the world, Rosling hopes. Chief among the myths still to be debunked, he says, is the idea that the world is split in two – with a developed world on one side and a developing world on the other. “We don’t have two types of countries any longer, we have four or five types … [and] the idea that the western world will be ahead of the rest for ever is wrong.”
Anxiety about population growth is another of Rosling’s targets. “If you save the lives of poor children you destroy the planet. There are so many who think that death keeps control of population growth. That’s just wrong!” Child mortality has plummeted over the past half-century, so it’s no longer death that determines population growth, he insists, but fertility rate – and this too has decreased in so many countries. “The average number of children in the world is 2.4. The number of children below eight years of age in India has stopped growing. The number of children in the total world has stopped growing. Most of the fertility transition is done.”
“I can show you! Let me show you the world,” he enthuses, interrupting our interview only briefly to pull from his pockets a series of props. Laying out toy bricks and a handful of counters on the table, he shows in 3-D how the dynamics of global population, child mortality and carbon emissions have changed over the past 50 years – and how the world might look by the end of the century.
“[We now have] 7 billion people, [with] 7 million children dying. Six [million] of these die in the poorest 2 billion, 1 die here in the middle and here almost no one. Can you see?” he asks, waving his hands over his display. “There is no developing world with high child mortality! It is 2 billion people that still have three or more children per woman, where still girls cannot go to school, or very few, and where you have almost all the child mortality and almost all the maternal mortality.”
If Rosling comes across as advocating for a shift in focus towards the poorest countries, he’s adamant he’s not. “I don’t debate. There are too many debates. Too much Word, not enough Excel.
“If people want to help with something, it’s good to know where the problem is … [for example] the problem of lack of schooling for girls is not a global problem. It is not a developing world problem, it’s a problem in the poorest 2 billion. But there it’s an extremely severe problem … Men in Afghanistan have half the schooling of women in the world. But young women in Afghanistan have one-seventh of the men in Afghanistan. This is the world I would like to explain.
Disappointed with his perceived lack of impact on public understanding of global progress, the self-styled “edutainer” is now turning his attention towards teachers. Over the next few years, his Gapminder foundation will push through a school project to provide materials on the basic macro-trends on population, economy, living conditions and energy, to help teachers in high school and college to better communicate the realities of the world.
“Fame is a dangerous thing. It’s what the post-industrial society wants. They want fame and many followers on Twitter. But to really make the world understandable, that challenge is remaining.”
More information about Hans Rosling: http://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling.html
A comprehensive study suggests that food production is not on track to keep up with population growth. That means food prices are going to rise in coming decades. This trend could also reverse the progress we’ve made in world food security.
Previous studies have shown that we’ll need to boost current yields by 60% to 110% to meet rising demand and ensure food security. That means global crop production will have to double by 2050 if we hope to meet the needs of the 9.6 billion people projected to populate the Earth by that point.
Not to mention the 870 million people currently living who are chronically undernourished.
The reason for such a dramatic increase, say the experts, has to do with not just the rising population, but also changes to global-scale dietary habits (namely an increase in demand for meat and dairy), and increasing biofuel consumption.
Key global crops
To reach this alarming conclusion, Deepak Ray, Jonathan Foley, and colleagues, took a look at over 2.5 million agricultural statistics collected from across the world from 1961 to 2008. The team was concerned with four key global crops in particular, namely maize, rice, wheat, and soybean — which collectively produce nearly two-thirds of global agricultural calories.
Their calculations show that the yields in these four crops are increasing 1.6%, 1.0%, 0.9%, and 1.3% per year respectively. This is considerably less than the 2.4% required to double global production in the next 35 years. At current rates, we’re looking at 67%, 42%, 38%, and 55% increases respectively by 2050.
Global Projections: Solid lines show projections; dashed lines shows the 2.4% yield improvement required to meet demand by 2050; shading shows the 90% confidence region derived from 99 samples.
What’s more, yields are no longer improving for 24% to 39% of our most important cropland areas.
As a result, the low rates of yield increases may result in no change to the per capita harvests over the course of the next several decades.
“Thus, if we are to boost the production in these top four global crops that are now responsible for directly providing 43% of the global dietary energy and 40% of its daily protein supply from yield increases alone, we have to immediately determine where and exactly by how much yields are changing,” write the authors in the study, which now appears in PLoS.
The geography of the situation
As noted, these effects will be particularly severe for low-income countries with rapidly rising populations. Guatemala is particularly problematic example — a country with a corn-dependent population on the rise, while corn production goes into decline.
China, India and Indonesia are witnessing rice yield increases of only 0.7%, 1.0%, and 0.4% improvement per year.
The researchers are hoping to highlighting those regions where investments must be targeted to increase yields.
”We have the potential to feed the world”
Concerned about this study and its implications, I contacted Ramez Raam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet to get his insights.
“This is a tremendously important paper from a solid team,” he told io9. “Jon Foley and others at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota have done some of the best work in understanding how to feed the world and whether or not we’re on track to.”
Like the study’s authors, Naam is concerned about our ability to meet the growing demand.
“Now, that said, we have the potential to feed the world,” he says. “We have more than enough land, sunlight, water, and nutrients. The number one problem is that many fields, particularly in poor countries, don’t produce nearly as much food as they could.”
Take a typical acre in the US, Europe, or Canada. It can produce four or five times as as much each year as a field in India or Bangladesh or sub-Saharan India. Overall, yields in developed nations are roughly twice the global average — this is called the yield gap.
“So if by 2050 we brought global yields up to current developed-nation yields, that would be sufficient to meet worldwide demand,” he explained.
I asked Naam how we could global yields up to developed-nation levels. He says there are two ways:
More development and industrialization: Developed nations have higher yields because of infrastructure and energy — fertilizer, irrigation systems, modern pesticides, tractors and combines, fuel to run them, and so on. By contrast, in the developing world, all the world is being done by hand or by animals — plowing the fields, planting the seeds, digging up the weeds, spraying whatever pesticide is available (if any), and so on. As countries get richer and get access to more capital, this becomes more doable.
Better crops: Option two is to engineer the crops themselves to have higher yields, resist pests, need less fertilizer and irrigation, and so on. In other words, genetic modification. And some of the most exciting genetic modification work going on — most of it being funded by the Gates Foundation and other non-profits — is looking at improving the photosynthesis in wheat and rice and soybeans (by porting the better version in corn), in making grains that can fertilize themselves from the nitrogen in the atmosphere (as soy and peas and other legumes can), crops that can grow in saltier and more acidic soils (which would allow farmers to expand their farmlands without chopping down forests), and crops that need less water (again allowing farmers to grow crops in more places).
These engineered crops haven’t arrived yet — they’re still in the lab. But once developed, Naam says they can be reproduced easily and spread to places where they can make up for the relative lack of energy and capital.
In addition to these two approaches, Naam says we should reduce food waste (an estimated 25% of all food gets thrown out!) and reduce the ‘meat burden.’ He’s a bit dubious about the last point, but feels that more work should be done to develop vat grown meat.
“But we are a long long ways from that being economical enough to make any significant dent,” he cautions.
Interestingly, the authors of the paper put forth nearly identical recommendations, adding that a portion of the production shortfall could also be met by expanding croplands, but at a high environmental cost to biodiversity and carbon emissions.
Read the entire study at PLoS One: “Yield Trends Are Insufficient to Double Global CropProduction by 2050”.
Image Bruce Rolf/Shutterstock.