Sunday, December 12, 2010

One Video is Worth 120,000 Bits of Data

Hans Rosling teaches global health. He knows how to make numbers interesting. Raw data, he realizes, is not enough -- he needs to "show it in ways that people enjoy and understand."

For a BBC segment, The Joy of Stats, he does that by animating data in real space -- a remarkably engaging and effective use of video that goes beyond what is possible in words alone.

Edward Tufte would be proud.

In trying to explain 200 years of development in 200 countries -- using 120,000 separate bits of data -- he creates a 3D animated chart, with an X-axis for wealth (income per person) and a Y-axis for health (life expectancy). Each colored data point represents a country (with the size of each circle representing that country's population). So we can watch as clusters of countries move from poor and sick to rich and healthy between 1810 and 2010. In five minutes.

And look what we learn -- visually. Initially Western countries get healthier faster, while Third World countries lag behind. Asian countries start to play catch-up in the 1950s, and become emerging economies in the 1970s.

There are still huge disparities between the worst-off (Congo) and best-off (Luxembourg), but the gap is closing, and overall, most countries have improved immeasurably over the past two centuries, migrating to the "healthy/wealthy" corner of the graph.

However, seeing this progress is infinitely more impactful than reading about it.

Can you think of creative ways to use data visually to make your video stories clearer and more compelling?

(Tip of the cyberhat to Society of Professional Journalists blog, "Journalism and the World.")

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