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Hans Rosling: ‘A kind and constantly curious genius’

Hans Rosling, who died this week aged 68 a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, had a virtuosity and flair that brought statistics to life

Hans Rosling was a kind and constantly curious genius. He was truly committed to the poorest people in this world, passionate about statistics and dedicated to communicating a fact-based worldview. His knowledge, virtuosity and humour infused his unique data visualisations with a life of their own, encouraging people around the world to engage with facts about population, global health and inequality that might otherwise have passed them by.

I first met him in his messy, overloaded office at Uppsala University in Sweden, where he was associate professor of internal medicine, in 1992. He showed me his now famous bubble graph on world statistics on handwritten overheads, and from that moment on he constantly provoked me to think and to become better.

Hans was born in Uppsala on 27 July 1948, and the city – about 43 miles north of Stockholm – loomed large in his life. He attended medical school at Uppsala University, graduating in 1974, and lectured there on international health from 1983 to 1996.

Along the way, he touched countless young lives. Fashion, food or sleep, he couldn’t care less about. The man who became famous as an “edutainer” on stage was just as mind-blowing, intense and inspiring in private discussions or in the classroom. He never accepted dogma, and had a boundless capacity to come up with new ideas.

Hans was my mentor in public health, in research and in life. He believed in people and gave me the confidence to do what I thought impossible. He was a professor who understood how to make others grow, and he sparked energy and a willingness to effect change in numerous young people in so many places around the world. Once you became his friend, he was always there for you.

We worked together for many years, organising courses in public health in India, Tanzania and Vietnam and collaborating on a textbook on global health. One paragraph in the book took weeks of conversations to agree upon, and it sometimes drove me crazy. But during our travels he never stopped educating me or anyone else who was interested, regardless of that person’s status or background.

To Hans, it didn’t matter if you were Bill Gates, a first-year medical student or a traditional birth attendant in a village in Tanzania – as long as you really listened and tried to understand. By the same token, he listened to others and liked to be challenged himself.

That appetite for challenge took Hans around the world. After graduating from Uppsala University in statistics and medicine in 1974 – by which time had already spent a year studying public health at St John’s Medical College in Bangalore, India – he worked as a doctor in northern Mozambique from 1979 to 1981.

He subsequently began investigating the cause of a rare paralytic disease affecting people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His research on the subject, which continued across Africa and led to the disease being named “konzo” – or “tired legs” in the Bantu language Yaka – earned him a PhD from Uppsala University in 1986.

Honesty came naturally to Hans. He once said to me: “To succeed, remember to always pay taxes and make no tricks with money.” No one worked for free around Hans, because he made sure everyone had a salary. His loyalty to his friends and family was strong. Agneta, his wife, who travelled to Mozambique with him when they were a young and idealistic couple, started as a midwife, became a psychiatrist, did her PhD and became head of clinic, encouraged by Hans. They married in 1972, when he was 24; he would later find statistical mileage even in those bare details.

Ola, Anna and Magnus, his three children, were very close to him, but sometimes I wondered how his family could stand all his travels and his impossible work pace. Hans always worked. I think it was compensated by his absolute attention when he was present in front of you, full of warmth and with a great sense of humour.

Hans Rosling
Pinterest
Hans Rosling delivers a talk on global population growth in Oxford in July 2012. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

In 1997, he became professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute; in 2005, still pursuing his dream of a fact-based global outlook, and determined to fight devastating misconceptions about global development”, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation together with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund.

Within two years, Google paid an undisclosed amount for the Trendalyzer software behind the bouncing bubbles and animated statistics that, through his Ted talks and TV documentaries such as The Joy of Stats and Don’t Panic – the Truth about Population, propelled him into the global spotlight.

When Hans became famous, he would sometimes laugh about it like an excited boy. Yet fame never changed his way of being. He just truly loved being on stage. I think what he enjoyed most about the elevation of his status was the access it gave him to influential people. That meant he could make things happen.

One example of this occurred during the Ebola epidemic, when he mobilised funds and established an Ebola course for international aid workers. He gave an epic speech at the Medical Association on the importance of acting quickly against Ebola that left all 400 people present ready to leave the next day to help.

One of his last missions involved assisting the ministry of health in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic. He really enjoyed working cheek by jowl in a small office with his Liberian colleagues, passionately charting, analysing and acting to stop the epidemic.

Hans was discouraged sometimes. “I teach the same thing over decades and ignorance is still there,” he would occasionally lament.

But Hans, you moved so many of us. No one can take your place, but we can all play our part in creating a fact-based understanding of the world that will help us make the right decisions for our future.

Remembering Hans Rosling

Posted by:
February 7, 2017

Is the world getting worse every day in every way, as some news media would have you believe? No.

In fact, the most reliable data shows that in meaningful ways — such as child mortality rate, literacy rate, human lifespan — the world is actually, slowly and measurably, getting better.

Hans Rosling dedicated the latter part of his distinguished career to making sure the world knew that.

And in his 10 TED Talks — the most TED Talks by a single person ever posted — he hammered the point home again and again. As he told us once: “You see, it is very easy to be an evidence-based professor lecturing about global theory, because many people get stuck in wrong ideas.”

Using custom software (or sometimes, just using a few rocks), he and his team ingested data from sources like the World Bank (fun story: their data was once locked away until Hans’ efforts helped open it to the world) and turned it into bright, compelling movable graphs that showed the complex story of global progress over time, while tweaking everyone’s expectations and challenging us to think and to learn.

Photo: Asa Mathat

Bounding up on stage with the energy of 1,000 suns and his special extra-long pointer, Swedish professor Hans Rosling became a data rock star, dedicated to giving his audience a truer picture of the world. Photo: Asa Mathat

We’re devastated to announce that Hans passed away this morning, surrounded by family.

As his children announced on their shared website, Gapminder: “Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand.

We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!”

Global Issues

Watch Hans Rosling’s shortest TEDTalk ever

on May 22, 2012

Do some religions have a higher birth rate than others

Hans Rosling had a question:

Do some religions have a higher birth rate than others — and how does this affect global population growth? Speaking at the TEDxSummit in Doha, Qatar, he graphs data over time and across religions.

Hans Rosling. Global health expert; data visionary

In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings. Global trends in health and economics come to vivid life. And the big picture of global development—with some surprisingly good news—snaps into sharp focus. Full bio

I’m going to talk about religion. But it’s a broad and very delicate subject, so I have to limit myself. And therefore I will limit myself to only talk about the links between religion and sexuality. 

0:30  I will talk of what I remember as the most wonderful. It’s when the young couple whisper, Tonight we are going to make a baby.” My talk will be about the impact of religions on the number of babies per woman.

This is indeed important, because everyone understands that there is some sort of limit on how many people we can be on this planet. And there are some people who say that the world population is growing like this — three billion in 1960, seven billion just last year — and it will continue to grow because there are religions that stop women from having few babies, and it may continue like this.

To what extent are these people right?

When I was born there was less than one billion children in the world, and today, 2000, there’s almost two billion. What has happened since, and what do the experts predict will happen with the number of children during this century?

This is a quiz. What do you think? Do you think it will decrease to one billion?

Will it remain the same and be two billion by the end of the century?

Will the number of children increase each year up to 15 years, or will it continue in the same fast rate and be four billion children up there? I will tell you by the end of my speech.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
ted.com|By Hans Rosling

But now, what does religion have to do with it? When you want to classify religion, it’s more difficult than you think.

You go to Wikipedia and the first map you find is this. It divides the world into Abrahamic religions and Eastern religion, but that’s not detailed enough. So we went on and we looked in Wikipedia, we found this map. But that subdivides Christianity, Islam and Buddhism into many subgroups, which was too detailed.

Therefore at Gapminder we made our own map, and it looks like this. Each country’s a bubble.

The size is the population — big China, big India here. And the color now is the majority religion.

It’s the religion where more than 50 percent of the people say that they belong. It’s Eastern religion in India and China and neighboring Asian countries. Islam is the majority religion all the way from the Atlantic Ocean across the Middle East, Southern Europe and through Asia all the way to Indonesia.

That’s where we find Islamic majority. And Christian majority religions, we see in these countries. They are blue. And that is most countries in America and Europe, many countries in Africa and a few in Asia.

The white here are countries which cannot be classified, because one religion does not reach 50 percent or there is doubt about the data or there’s some other reason. So we were careful with that.

 So bear with our simplicity now when I take you over to this shot. This is in 1960. And now I show the number of babies per woman here: two, four or six — many babies, few babies. And here the income per person in comparable dollars. The reason for that is that many people say you have to get rich first before you get few babies. So low income here, high income there.

And indeed in 1960, you had to be a rich Christian to have few babies. The exception was Japan. Japan here was regarded as an exception.

Otherwise it was only Christian countries. But there was also many Christian countries that had six to seven babies per woman. But they were in Latin America or they were in Africa. And countries with Islam as the majority religion, all of them almost had six to seven children per woman, irregardless of the income level. And all the Eastern religions except Japan had the same level.

 let’s see what has happened in the world. I start the world, and here we go.

Now 1962 — can you see they’re getting a little richer, but the number of babies per woman is falling? Look at China. They’re falling fairly fast. And all of the Muslim majority countries across the income are coming down, as do the Christian majority countries in the middle income range. And when we enter into this century, you’ll find more than half of mankind down here.

And by 2010, we are actually 80 percent of humans who live in countries with about two children per woman.

 It’s a quite amazing development which has happened.  And these are countries from United States here, with $40,000 per capita, France, Russia, Iran, Mexico, Turkey, Algeria, Indonesia, India and all the way to Bangladesh and Vietnam, which has less than five percent of the income per person of the United States and the same amount of babies per woman.

 I can tell you that the data on the number of children per woman is surprisingly good in all countries. We get that from the census data. It’s not one of these statistics which is very doubtful.

 what we can conclude is you don’t have to get rich to have few children. It has happened across the world.

 when we look at religions, we can see that the Eastern religions, indeed there’s not one single country with a majority of that religion that has more than three children. Whereas with Islam as a majority religion and Christianity, you see countries all the way. But there’s no major difference.

There’s no major difference between these religions. There is a difference with income. The countries which have many babies per woman here, they have quite low income. Most of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. But there are also countries here like Guatemala, like Papua New Guinea, like Yemen and Afghanistan.

Many think that Afghanistan here and Congo, which have suffered severe conflicts, that they don’t have fast population growth. It’s the other way around.

In the world today, it’s the countries that have the highest mortality rates that have the fastest population growth. Why?

Because the death of a child is compensated by one more child. These countries have six children per woman. They have a sad death rate of one to two children per woman.

But 30 years from now, Afghanistan will go from 30 million to 60 million. Congo will go from 60 to 120. That’s where we have the fast population growth. And many think that these countries are stagnant, but they are not.

Let me compare Senegal, a Muslim dominated country, with a Christian dominated country, Ghana. I take them backwards here to their independence, when they were up here in the beginning of the 1960s. Just look what they have done. It’s an amazing improvement, from seven children per woman, they’ve gone all the way down to between four and five. It’s a tremendous improvement.

7:54 So what does it take? Well we know quite well what is needed in these countries. You need to have children to survive. You need to get out of the deepest poverty so children are not of importance for work in the family. You need to have access to some family planning. And you need the fourth factor, which perhaps is the most important factor.

 let me illustrate that fourth factor by looking at Qatar. Here we have Qatar today, and there we have Bangladesh today. If I take these countries back to the years of their independence, which is almost the same year — ’71, ’72 — it’s a quite amazing development which had happened. Look at Bangladesh and Qatar. With so different incomes, it’s almost the same drop in number of babies per woman.

And what is the reason in Qatar?

Well I do as I always do. I went to the statistical authority of Qatar, to their webpage — It’s a very good webpage. I recommend it — and I looked up — oh yeah, you can have lots of fun here — and provided free of charge, I found Qatar’s social trends.

Very interesting. Lots to read. I found fertility at birth, and I looked at total fertility rate per woman. These are the scholars and experts in the government agency in Qatar, and they say the most important factors are: “Increased age at first marriage, increased educational level of Qatari woman and more women integrated in the labor force.” I couldn’t agree more.

Science couldn’t agree more. This is a country that indeed has gone through a very, very interesting modernization.

 So what it is, is these four: Children should survive, children shouldn’t be needed for work, women should get education and join the labor force and family planning should be accessible.

The average number of children in the world is like in Colombia — it’s 2.4 today. There are countries up here which are very poor. And that’s where family planning, better child survival is needed. I strongly recommend Melinda Gates’ last TEDTalk. And here, down, there are many countries which are less than two children per woman. So when I go back now to give you the answer of the quiz, it’s two.

We have reached peak child. The number of children is not growing any longer in the world. We are still debating peak oil, but we have definitely reached peak child. And the world population will stop growing. The United Nations Population Division has said it will stop growing at 10 billion. But why do they grow if the number of children doesn’t grow?

Well I will show you here. I will use these card boxes in which your notebooks came. They are quite useful for educational purposes. Each card box is one billion people. And there are two billion children in the world. There are two billion young people between 15 and 30. These are rounded numbers. Then there is one billion between 30 and 45, almost one between 45 and 60. And then it’s my box. This is me: 60-plus. We are here on top.

what will happen now is what we call “the big fill-up.” You can see that it’s like three billion missing here. They are not missing because they’ve died; they were never born. Because before 1980, there were much fewer people born than there were during the last 30 years.

So what will happen now is quite straightforward. The old, sadly, we will die. The rest of you, you will grow older and you will get two billion children. Then the old will die. The rest will grow older and get two billion children. And then again the old will die and you will get two billion children.

This is the great fill-up. It’s inevitable. And can you see that this increase took place without life getting longer and without adding children?

Religion has very little to do with the number of babies per woman. All the religions in the world are fully capable to maintain their values and adapt to this new world.

12:27 And we will be just 10 billion in this world, if the poorest people get out of poverty, their children survive, they get access to family planning.

That is needed. But it’s inevitable that we will be two to three billion more. So when you discuss and when you plan for the resources and the energy needed for the future, for human beings on this planet, you have to plan for 10 billion.


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