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All posts by Dan Whalen,
Providence, RI (resume)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hans Rosling

        For this post, I want to do something a little different.  I'd like to take the opportunity to do a little plug for this man right here, one of my heroes, Mr. Hans Rosling.

       Rosling is one of the world's leading experts in public health.  The guy spent two decades consulting governments in Africa on epidemiology, health provision, and how to train medical professionals.  He's a professor of public health at the Karolinska Institut (that's the school that doles out the Nobel Prize for medicine) and is one of the founders of Sweden's Doctors Without Borders.  Also, he's an all around cool guy.  I mean...look at the 'em...look at that face...

       He also runs an organization called Gapminder, which provides educational tools to help the public use actual datasets to examine our world and gain a better understanding of it.

       As part of that mission, the organization created a software system called Trendalyzer (which Google bought a few years ago, but I don't know what they're doing with it).  Using constantly updated, real-world data for the WHO, IMF, UN and others, the Tredalyzer makes on-demand graphs useful for studying world trends in a wide variety of global issues.  It's an absolute must for anyone interested in finance, economics, geopolitics, history or environment.  AND IT'S FREE.

       It really is one of the coolest things I've seen on the internet (AND ITS FREE!!!).  Say I wanted to know if there is any relationship between income and the birthrate in a country.  I just pop the two parameters into the Tredalyzer and viola!

(NOTE - each bubble is a country, the size of the bubble is the population, the color is the continent)

       The two do seem related...up to a point.  See how as income per person increases (as we move along the horizontal axis), the number of children born per woman (the vertical access) decreases?  However, past $10,000 per person, adding more income does little to pull down the birth rate (see how the bubbles stop "curving downward" and "flatten out" around the $10k mark?).

       Or what if you wanted to know whether China or the US has the higher rate of female youth employment since 1991?

       So we can see how young females in China both now and then are more likely to be working than females of the same age in the US.  However, the employment rate in China for girls is clearly falling, approaching that of the States.  As more and more young girls are going to high school and college in China, and not directly into the workforce, the demographics of our two countries are beginning to converge in this social dimension.

       These graphs are easy to make, only take seconds to generate, ARE FREE, and most importantly, let our consider vital aspects of the world guided by empirical data, NOT by our preconceptions and assumptions.  

       To me, I think that this represents exactly what is so empowering and incredible about the digital age.  If you want to know what the world actually looks like, you no longer have to guess!  You can just look it up!  Anything you want to know, you can find out!  And the data - and our access to it - gets better and better every year.  I don't think we always appreciate how fantastic an achievement that is.

       Rosling is a big proponent of something he calls the "fact-based world view."  So many of our institutions, policies and movements are developed under assumptions that are not true, to solve problems that don't exist, while all the time missing the realities that are really affecting our lives.  All to often we allow our thinking to be influenced by obsolete information and emotional inclinations, not our intelligence or rationality. 

       This just plain should not be, says Rosling.  Nor does it have to. 
       So I ask you this week to dedicate the time you'd normally spend reading Economystified (and by the way thank you all so much for reading!!  I really appreciate it, you guys are great), to instead watch the talk by Hans Rosling I have linked at the end of this post.

       Afterwards, go to Gapminder's Trendalyzer yourself, AND START PLAYING AROUND WITH IT.  All you have to do is select any two variables out of the dropboxes in the axes and the program will set up a graph for you.  Then, you can use the slider at the bottom to scroll through time and the check boxes on the right to highlight specific countries.

       And I do literally mean, just play around with it.  Throw any old variables into the axes.  You never know what you might find out. 

       Anyway, if you find anything cool, post it in the comments below (after you produce a graph you like, press the "SHARE GRAPH" button on the top of it and you will be given a URL.  Anyone can just go to that URL and the Trendalyzer will automatically queue up your graph.  Share your URLs with us and give us your interpretation of the data!!).

       Also, I hope you check out Rosling's webpage, and pass along these links.  These things aren't just fun or interesting.  They're important. 

       And keep an eye out for Hans Rosling.  That funny old man is just so charming!  And kind of a brilliant...



    The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo took a lot of flack about a year ago when she published a book (Dead Aid) that made the argument that foreign aid causes a lot of political problems and produces little economic benefit, and so it may actually be more harmful than beneficial in the long run. Can we see support for her claim in the data?

    First check out my graph of aid received vs GDP per capita by going to this link: www.bit.ly/upjKpU and hit the "play" button in the bottom left.

    We can see the bubbles just bounce back and forth, they don't converge together into one nice smooth line the way that say wealth and life expectancy does (www.bit.ly/uVW4TI). Any two countries receiving the same amount of aid dollars can have VERY different GDPs per capita. And the trend holds over time.

    The same can be seen when we plot aid received and any health indicator, like life expectancy for example (www.bit.ly/rBjJ4b). The bubbles bounce around in a cloud, they don't gravitate together into a line or smooth curve. At least on these couple of parameters, we can see the data support Moyo's argument.


    Classic supply and demand! Here (www.bit.ly/t3h7nb) we can see quite nicely the countries that produce a lot of oil also tend to have really cheap at the pump gas prices. When the supply is high, prices are low, so says page 5 of every economics textbook in the world, and here we can justify the $80 cover price on the Microeconomics book I had to buy when I was in school (thank goodness).

    Of course there is some distortion. If you were a gas company operating in say Algeria, where the average citizens income is very low, you would go out of business really fast charging more than a dollar or two per gallon.

    But even countries with comparative wealth (the orange and yellow bubbles are Europe and North America), we can see a downward slope. So at least there we can see some evidence of the classic simple supply and demand laws.

    Except for Norway, weirdly, way up there in the top right. They produce a ton of oil and their gas is still expensive. This graph doesn't explain why, but its got me curious. I'm going to have to google "gas pricing in Norway" sometime today and see if I can figure that out (or else its going to bug me...)

    ANYWAY! Make some graphs, give us the link and tell us what you think you see!

  2. This might be the absolutely coolest thing ever.

    Or I am revealing myself to be the opposite of this. But I want to go share it with all my friends, thanks Dan! :D