Statistical Significance

I've been watching a lot of TED lately.

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference is an annual event in Monterey, CA. Each year, a thousand of the most fascinating and thought provoking people in the world are invited to attend. Fifty are given 18 minutes on stage and challenged to "give the talk of their lives" to this myriad of thinkers and doers. Does one steal the show?

For me, the answer is "yes": Hans Rosling.

I'm going to suggest something now, and it's going to sound really boring. Please take my word that it is not. Take 20 min and watch Hans Rosling speak, with his potent visualizations, about world health statistics.

I know the phrase 'world health statistics' probably conjures up thoughts of dry lectures and columns of colorless text containing vast quantities of cold data. But Rosling brings a storyteller's heart and a sportscaster's zeal to this presentation, with stunning visuals and a sprinkle of humor to spice up his sober sincerity.

A year later, at the 2007 conference, Rosling reprises his talk with some new insights. If the first presentation left you enamored with this man, as it did me, this one will surely not let you down. At the conclusion, he brings his point home in a truly unexpected manner.

The visualization tools shown in the video are available at gapminder.org and are every bit as powerful as the presentations make them out to be. But as Steven Levitt warns:
The one danger of great data tools like these, however, is that they create such beautiful graphs that it is easy to forget that what you are looking at are correlations, not necessarily anything causal.

Apparently Rosling met the Google guys at TED. They bought the software behind gapminder.org, Trendalyzer, in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. Interestingly, Marissa Mayer at Google told Rosling "You have to make videos". This offended him. "We want to be modern, we want to make webpages where people lean forward and click," he replied. To which Mayer responded, "No, they don't want to lean forward and click, they want to lean back and watch."

I think they are both right. From the about Gapminder page (emphasis mine):
Gapminder is a non-profit venture promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels.

For some people, understanding comes through use, through "lean forward and click". For others, through demonstration, through "lean back and watch". In another presentation, Rosling shows a picture of musical notes taken from Chopin's "Nocturne". He supposes that looking at raw data is like looking at a musical score. Only a student in the field can recognize the beauty and power of the composition without tools to realize the potential lurking within the notation.

Beauty and power, in music as well as statistics, come from giving the right tools to the right people. And as the web has done for independent musicians, it can provide the right tools to almost anyone, and let the right people show their stuff. The right tools are becoming accessible and freely available, thanks to people like Hans Rosling.

By the way, he later apologized to Marrisa Mayer after the video of his first TED talk generated over a million views. And at the time of this writing, he has posted 10 short video "GapCasts", which seem to have taken a presentation cue from network TV weather predictions!