Obituaries

Remembering Hans Rosling: A man whose love of stats inspired the world

By Oliver Smith 8 February 2017
Hans Rosling, 1948 – 2017
Summary

You've never seen data presented like this.

In 2006, with a bumbling sense of urgency, statistics guru Hans Rosling exploded on the internet when he appeared in his first Ted talk.

In 20 minutes he debunked myths about the so-called “developing world” with colourful graphs, data visualisations and energetic hand waving.

Like an explosion of energy in an otherwise lethargic field, the then 57-year-old statistician captured the imagination of tens of millions of women, men and children around the world with his work.

Yesterday Rosling, aged 68, passed away after fighting pancreatic cancer for the last year.

A data rock star

His 10 Ted talks, countless appearances on TV, radio and in magazines and newspapers have inspired a love of statistics for countless millions across the planet.

He also deepened our understanding of the world around us, with his inspiring talks on poverty, HIV, the global population, Asia’s rise, religion, child mortality, and the impact of the humble washing machine.

Rosling’s videos challenged our assumptions of the world in a provocative way – global violence isn’t actually rising and humanity has never been wealthier (although wealth has never been more disproportionately distributed).

In 2007 Rosling co-founded Gapminder, a non-profit group to create free software and tools for teachers around the world to harness and visualise statistics for their students in more colourful and exciting ways than ever before.

Rosling’s lasting legacy, both from his own videos and the work of Gapminder, will be the way his sheer enthusiasm and effort managed to sex-up statistics, in classrooms and across the world of work.

Google and Apple banished the geekiness from programming, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street put the mojo in finance, and Dragon’s Den brought tinkering entrepreneurs out of the garden shed.

Today statisticians are rock stars too, and we’ve Rosling to thank.

The search for truth

While Rosling wasn’t a religious man, his strong belief was in facts and the search for truth.

As he said: “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist. It’s a new category where we take emotion apart and we just work analytically with the world.”

In an age when facts, especially those spewed by our highest elected politicians, are either questionable or just in terribly short supply, Rosling’s death is felt even more sharply.

Although, as the possibilist himself once said, our world “has never been less bad”.