The death of a master storyteller

On February 7, 2017, the world lost one of its best-known Swedish academics, one described as ‘the man in whose hands data sings’.  Others described him as a ‘data guru’ and even ‘the Jedi master of data visualisation.

Hans Rosling perceived himself as an educational entertainer, aptly labeling himself an ‘edutainer.’ In today’s connected digital era, his presentations, brimming with innovative ideas and distinctive but everyday props, enthralled a worldwide audience. Multi-coloured LEGO bricks, he understood, were more effective than orthodox Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, especially when describing topics of an intricate and complex nature, such as global trends in health-care and problematic economics.

It’s no wonder then, that the reputable American weekly news magazine Time, as recently as 2012, included Rosling in its list of the world’s 100 most influential people, declaring how “his stunning renderings of the numbers … have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways.

He did not, however, hail from the field of what is today known as ‘data science’. Rosling followed a career as a physician, initially studying medical statistics in Sweden’s Uppsala University followed by a stint in public health in India. In 1981 the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced a serious outbreak of a rare paralytic disease (designated as “konzo” by Rosling) and through statistical analysis he unearthed its cause: Malnutrition and badly-cooked cassava.

Many see this as the beginning of a highly famous vocation as a public educator. One of the many obituaries written about Rosling described how “what set [him] apart [was not] just his apt observations of broad social and economic trends, but the stunning way he presented them.

And yet, notwithstanding his natural talent, it is relatively easy to understand what made Hans Rosling’s presentations so popular; he was a born storyteller. Rosling had the powerful ability and flair to present visualisation through which to share the human impact of numbers. His colourful props underpinned a real-life story that “… rendered global trends clear, intuitive and even playful.

Storytelling is a cornerstone of the human experience; from the very young to the old, a well-told story captivates people from all walks of life. And though stories span millennia and epochs, the fundamental elements of storytelling have remained unchanged. If one were to break down a story into elements, one would unearth a seamless blend of facts, background, visual imagery and carefully-chosen words.

Rosling’s presentations were customarily based upon bland statistics drawn from various United Nations publications, but when placed against the relevant context, illustrated by effective visualisation and animations, this data morphed into thought-provoking insights that was further intensified by Rosling’s ‘sportscaster’s flair.’

Rosling, more than many others, understood the fundamental paradigm that data describes what is happening whilst stories describe why. A balanced combination of what and why fosters the understanding and appreciation that captivates the audience in an enthralled atmosphere.

From improving public education to preventing global diseases, data in the hands of Hans Rosling had an emotional and unlimited potential. How often have we heard about the dramatic rise in the world’s population? Notwithstanding, one can easily challenge any sceptic to listen to Rosling’s 2010 TEDTalk entitled Global Population Growth, Box By Box”, and not be entranced right from the very introduction:

I still remember the day in school when our teacher told us that the world population had become three billion people, and that was in 1960.  I’m going to talk now about how world population has changed from that year and into the future, but I will not use digital technology, as I’ve done during my first five TEDTalks. Instead I have progressed, and I am, today, launching a brand new analogue teaching technology that I picked up from IKEA: this box.

If that was not convincing, consider the dramatic conclusion to his 2007 TEDTalk, when unexpectedly and half-humorously, Rosling announced:

So the seemingly impossible is possible.  Even African countries can achieve this.  And I’ve shown you the shot where the seemingly impossible is possible.  And remember, please remember my main message, which is this: the seemingly impossible is possible.  We can have a good world.  I showed you the shots, I proved it in the PowerPoint, and I think I will convince you also by culture.  Bring me my sword!  Sword swallowing is from ancient India.  It’s a cultural expression that for thousands of years has inspired human beings to think beyond the obvious.  And I will now prove to you that the seemingly impossible is possible by taking this piece of steel, solid steel. This is the army bayonet from the Swedish Army, 1850, in the last year we had war.  And it’s all solid steel – you can hear here.  And I’m going to take this blade of steel, and push it down through my body of blood and flesh, and prove to you that the seemingly impossible is possible.  Can I request a moment of absolute silence?

And with that dramatic finale to his presentation Hans Rosling proved that he was also an accomplished sword-swallower.

He was truly a man of many skills and is badly missed.