Optimism with Data

What will our future be like? Is there no or some hope that things evolve in a good direction? Will we make progress?

Data play a crucial role in answering these questions.

Steven Pinker (Harvard University, Department of Psychology) in his answer to the EDGE question of 2016 considers that Quantifying Human Progress is the most interesting recent (scientific) news:

But the most interesting news is that the quantification of life has been extended to the biggest question of all: Have we made progress? Have the collective strivings of the human race against entropy and the nastier edges of evolution succeeded in improving the human condition?’

‘Human intuition is a notoriously poor guide to reality. …. But the cognitive and data revolutions warn us not to base our assessment of anything on subjective impressions or cherry-picked incidents. As long as bad things haven’t vanished altogether, there will always be enough to fill the news, and people will intuit that the world is falling apart. The only way to circumvent this illusion is to plot the incidence of good and bad things over time. Most people agree that life is better than death, health better than disease, prosperity better than poverty, knowledge better than ignorance, peace better than war, safety better than violence, freedom better than coercion. That gives us a set of yardsticks by which we can measure whether progress has actually occurred.

The interesting news is that the answer is mostly “yes.” …. Economic historians and development scholars (including Gregory Clark, Angus Deaton, Charles Kenny, and Steven Radelet) have plotted the growth of prosperity in their data-rich books, and the case has been made even more vividly in websites with innovative graphics such as Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, Max Roser’s Our World in Data, and Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress.’

What may be true for the world must not be true for the individuals.
Let’s have a look at these mostly well-known data sites:

Max Roser: Our World in Data

‘Max Roser is the founder of OurWorldInData. He is an economist working at the University of Oxford. His background is in economics, geoscience and philosophy. His research is focusing on the long-term growth and distribution of living standards.’

‘On my website I am presenting the long-term data on how we are changing our world. The idea is to tell the history of our present world – based on empirical data and visualised in graphs.’


‘Most of the long-run trends are positive and paint an optimistic view of our world. Topic by topic, the empirical view of our world shows how the Enlightenment continues to make our world a better place. It chronicles how we are becoming less violent and increasingly more tolerant. The data displays how new ideas continue to improve living standards, allowing us to live a healthier, richer and happier life. It is the story of declining poverty and better food provision in a world we care about.

The empirical view on our world shows how misplaced doom and defeatism is and my aim is to encourage those who work to make our world a better place still. At the same time my hope is also to help to change the mind of those of you who do not think that we are creating a better world. By looking at the empirical data I want to explain why I am optimistic about how we are changing our world and why I think it is worthwhile to engage in the global long-term project of Enlightenment. Although most trends are clearly going in the right direction I also show where this is not the case. In a world of hysteria we cannot focus on what is important, but a fact based view on our world should help us to focus on the topics that are most important.’  http://ourworldindata.org/about/


Human Progress.org

Human Progress’ mission statement (http://humanprogress.org/about):

‘Evidence from academic institutions and international organizations shows dramatic improvements in human well-being. These improvements are especially striking in the developing world.
Unfortunately, there is often a wide gap between the reality and public perception, including that of many policymakers, scholars in unrelated fields, and intelligent lay persons. To make matters worse, the media emphasizes bad news, while ignoring many positive long-term trends.

We hope to help in correcting misperceptions regarding the state of humanity through the presentation of empirical data that focuses on long-term developments. All of our wide-ranging data comes from third parties, including the World Bank, the OECD, the Eurostat, and the United Nations. By putting together this comprehensive data in an accessible way, our goal is to provide a useful resource for scholars, journalists, students, and the general public.

While we think that policies and institutions compatible with freedom and openness are important factors in promoting human progress, we let the evidence speak for itself. We hope that this website leads to a greater appreciation of the improving state of the world and stimulates an intelligent debate on the drivers of human progress.

Note: HumanProgress.org is a project of the Cato Institute with major support from the John Templeton Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Brinson Foundation and the Dian Graves Owen Foundation.’

Some data:



And here is top-star Hans Rosling with his gapminder.org where he deconstructs misleading, ’60-years-behind-reality’ opinions with data.

An example: Hans Rosling asks: Has the UN gone mad?

‘The United Nations just announced their boldest goal ever: To eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, already by 2030.
Looking at the realities of extremely poor people the goal seems impossible. The rains didn’t fall in Malawi this year. The poor farmers Dunstar & Jenet, gather a tiny maize harvest in a small pile on the ground outside their mud hut. But Dunstar & Jenet know exactly what they need to break the vicious circle of poverty. And Hans Rosling shows how billions of people have already managed. This year’s “hunger season” may very well be Dunster’s & Jenet’s last.
Up-to-date statistics show that recent global progress is ‘the greatest story of our time – possibly the greatest story in all of human history. The goal seems unrealistic to many highly educated people because their worldview is lagging 60 years behind reality.’




A focussed view: OXFAM’s new study

‘An Economy for the 1%

 Runaway inequality has created a world where 62 people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population – a figure that has fallen from 388 just five years ago, according to an Oxfam report published on January 18th.
How pivilege and power in the economy drive extreme inequality and how this can  be stopped. The global inequality crisis is reaching new extremes.The richest 1%now have more wealth than the rest of the world combined.
Power and privilege is being used to skew the economic system to increase the gap between the richest and the rest. A global network of tax havens further enables the richest individuals to hide $7.6 trillion.’ -> Methodology
OXFAM’s conclusion:
‘The fight against poverty will not be won until the inequality crisis is tackled.’

Income distribution. Data on Max Roser

‘A lesson that that we can take away from this empirical research is that political forces at work on the national level are possibly important for how incomes are distributed. If there was a universal trend towards more inequality it would be in line with the notion that inequality is determined by global market forces and technological progress where it is very hard (or for other reasons undesirable) to change the forces that lead to higher inequality. Inequality would then be inevitable. The reality of different inequality trends within countries suggests that the institutional and political framework in different countries play a role in shaping inequality of incomes.’





Waiting for Don’t Panic

‘Internationally acclaimed Swedish Professor Hans Rosling will present Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population, an ‘as-live’ studio event featuring cutting-edge infographics, as part of a short series of programmes exploring global population trends for BBC Two’s international current affairs strand This World.’


And while waiting enjoy Hans Rosling’s Joy of Stats.

10 billion

Hans Rosling is an early fighter for open data and one of the best, no: the best in presenting insights from these data.

His last example comes from TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in Doha, Qatar (April 16-20, 2012) and demonstrates that ‘religion has very little to do with the number of babies per woman’.


Some more examples of what has been done with open data are given by  publicdata.eu

With an overview of Apps:

Some of these won prizes in the http://opendatachallenge.org/

And now a new competition sponsored by The Guardian and Google is under way,

‘The Guardian Datastore and Google have teamed up to see who can help visualise the data which will show which governments are adopting the economic policies that will facilitate job growth and innovation to lead the world out of the economic slump.’

They are giving hints to datasets, called ‘the world’s key economic datasets from the UN, World Trade Organisation, IMF and some of the world’s major economic experts…’


Trendalyzer and sons

Explaining developments in the real world using statistical information and visual presentations developed in many ways since William Playfair‘s pioneer work.  One of the most impressive and most popular techniques are time animated scatter plots. And here the Roslings (Hans, his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna) created (in their Gapminder Foundation) the Trendalyzer Software.

‘ This software unveils the beauty of statistical time series by converting boring numbers into enjoyable, animated and interactive graphics. The current version of Trendalyzer is available since March 2006 as Gapminder World, a web-service displaying time series of development statistics for all countries.’ (from: http://www.gapminder.org/about-gapminder/history/)


In March 2007 Google acquired Trendalyzer from the Gapminder Foundation. It’s now called Motion Chart and integrated into Google spreadsheet and Google public data.


This kind of visualisation is since used by others, too.  Some examples:

NcomVA – a spin off of Linköping University in Sweden – introduces animated scatter plots in NcomVA’s eXplorer software, used i.e. by OECD.

See OECD’s Regional Statistics (Chapter Access to Education in Canada and US)


The World Bank offers Data Visualizer:


And from Egypt comes Epicsyst’s Trend Compass


And this is surely not the whole story about Trendalyzer and its offspring. Give us some more examples!

Official Google Blog: Visualize your own data in the Google Public Data Explorer

Official Google Blog: Visualize your own data in the Google Public Data Explorer
via Official Google Blog: Visualize your own data in the Google Public Data Explorer.