BBC World News - Horizons

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Meeting the man behind the little coloured bubbles

For years I have been using a way of creating fun but informative graphs which consist of little coloured bubbles jumping up and down a screen showing how increases in wealth have increased the amount of time people live in different parts of the world.

When I was told to jump on a plane and go to Sweden for the day to interview a Swedish statistician, I was amazed to find I was interviewing the man behind the little coloured bubbles I had been using for so long.

I am not the only one fascinated by the bubbles or the man who invented them. Hans Rosling was voted one of the world’s one hundred most influential people by Time Magazine last year. He is professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and he’s been an adviser for the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

Rosling’s GapMinder website is used by analysts all over the world to understand how different data connect with each other. The nerve centre of his operation is a very modest flat in a rather grey concrete part of Stockholm. The backroom of the flat works as a very sophisticated TV studio and he sometimes is filmed using an ordinary decorator’s roller to paint graphs on his office wall to create web videos to explain his view of what is happening in the world.

One of his most famous arguments is over the extent of population growth. With much talk recently of the concern of ever expanding population, Rosling’s analysis implies that many have ignored some important facts.

At the global level, a massive demographic shift is happening. Fertility rates around the world have fallen and the number of children has stopped growing. It’s a silent but profound change.

Today, almost one in ten people is over 60 years old. By 2050 it will be one in five.

Rosling says that the “most drastic change” in demographics over the last 40 years is the fall of the world’s fertility rate down from five to almost two births per woman. This is in spite of the continued growth in the world’s population which can be explained by the growth in the number of adults between 30-75 years.

In 1960 there were three billion people in the world. By 2008 there were 6.7 billion people in the world. By 2050 it is expected that there could be nine billion people in the world.

But at this point, Rosling believes the population will stabilise. The reason that the population doesn’t inextricably rise, he says, is that as healthcare gets better and child mortality falls, people do not have as many children.

In other words, there is a kind of self-correcting mechanism which comes into play.

What is so engaging about Rosling is that he understands that the importance of academics and scientists lie not just in the work they do, but in their ability to explain it to others.

Even if you disagree with his analysis it is hard not to welcome a voice that people understand. He adds to the debate in this important area of world development.

In our programme he explains his view of what could happen with the use of polystyrene people and a 3D world map. His obvious fun with his subject is not an act. He is a genuinely engaging character and is much the same talking about fertility rates as he was when we went for a Chinese buffet afterwards.

He is the best example of a man who knows that the power of knowledge and insight comes not just from the analysis itself but from the ability of others to understand and act on it.

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