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Follow The Bouncing Ball

Hans Rosling is a well-known Dutch professor of international health who has made a name for himself by becoming one of the best data visualizers in the world.

He has developed dynamic means of presenting otherwise undigestible data streams into fast moving and meaningful video charts that are nearly as captivating as music videos. His visualizations are to ordinary statistical presentations just like the highlights reel is to an entire World Cup tournament. (Here is a TED talk in which he explains how data really can and should be used to have an impact.)

The visualization above has been making something of a splash in recent days. And for good reason. It really is an exciting account of some key aspects of global development over the last 200 years, showing the dynamics and trends of global life expectancy and rising national wealth. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his statistics are accompanied by Rosling’s own animated and infectious presentation.

While I was watching this video, two thoughts struck me that I think are worth mentioning. The first is the idea that this information would be more compelling and, ultimately, more useful if it were somehow accompanied by a third axis showing global resource depletion. That is, the picture of seemingly inevitable progress in the growth of global wealth and longevity (population growth), I think, needs to be tempered with some indication of the rate at which the resources upon which this growth is based are being consumed and replaced with toxins that are eroding both our health and our wealth.

Second, I was really struck by the ways certain historical events made individual “balls” on Rosling’s data chart bounce dramatically up and down. Events like World War I and World War II, as well as individual country events like China’s cultural revolution or Russia’s experience of the 1990s really have the power to dramatically change a country’s standing in a very short period.

What this meant to me is that the world’s current (and very unevenly distributed) wealth and health are surprisingly fragile things. One can easily imagine how the impact of peak oil, water shortages, and climate change could send the high-flying balls on the upper right of Rosling’s visualization plummeting. That’s certainly something I’d want policy makers and voters to take away from this video. Don’t get so caught up in the overall progressive trend that Rosling brings to life that you forget to follow the bouncing ball.