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Setting Data Free With Gapminder


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via ReadWriteWeb by Guest Author on 8/22/10

gapminder_logo.pngLast month Hans Rosling, the Swedish global health professor, statician and sword swallower released a desktop version of Gapminder World, his mesmerizing data visualization tool. Named one of Foreign Policy's top 100 global thinkers in 2009, the information design visionary co-founded with his son and daughter-in-law aiming to make the world's most important trends accessible and digestible to global leaders, policy makers and the general public.

The software they developed, Trendalyzer, (acquired by Google in 2007) translates static numbers into dynamic, interactive bubbles moving through time. The desktop version of Gapminder, which is still in beta, allows you to create and present graphs without an Internet connection.


Emily Cunningham is a research intern at ReadWriteWeb and a design and user experience intern at She is pursuing a Master in Information Management at University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Emily is continually fascinated by the way social technologies are enabling collective action in new forms and on a scale we've never seen before. You can contact her at or via Twitter: @emahlee.

What is Awesome

Many of same things that make the Web-based version of Gapminder a great tool applies to the desktop version:

  • Graphs are highly dynamic and yet easy to understand and create. Presenting data as animated colored dots allows you to show the relationship between sets of information at a level of complexity that's impossible in your typical graphing program.
  • The interactive nature of the graphs lets users' curiosity lead them to more discoveries about the data. You might, for instance, click on one or two dots representing countries and all the other country dots fade in the background. You can then compare the life expectancy and income per person of say, India and Vietnam.
  • Accessing the raw data for the graph is as easy as clicking a button.
  • The example graphs are fun to browse and play with. For instance, "USA or China, who emits the most CO2?" and "Who has the most Internet users?"

Benefits specific to Gapminder Desktop include:

  • For presentation purposes, having the ability to bookmark graphs for easy reference is invaluable. (And with automatic software you never have to worry if your data is out of date.)
  • Obviously not needing a Internet connection is a big bonus. Especially if you're giving a lecture in a resource-constrained part of the world with unreliable Internet connectivity.

Definitely don't miss Rosling's screencast (below) explaining how to use the application. Bonus: He gives five good tips on how to give a successful presentation with the software. Double bonus: Rosling is an endearing, quirky guy and is entertaining to listen to even in a "how to" screencast. (See his answer to "What's it like knowing so many on reedit (sic) have intense nerd crushes on you?" in this screencast for more Rosling goodness.)

What Needs Work

In a word: social. I would love to see the most shared and viewed graphs as well as new graphs and the people who made them. Peering in on conversations to see how people are using the graphs in their own work would be interesting and might help spark more ideas on how to use the content. I'm thinking of the way Wordnik displays the most recent tweets of a given looked-up word to give users more context to its meaning. I can also imagine people discovering one another as well as important discussions and collaborations coming out of a more social Gapminder.

Right now, Gapminder World has a "share" button, but all it does is give users a shortened URL instructing them to "copy the short link below and paste it in a blog or send it by e-mail." (Though not necessarily in real-time, you can imagine the desktop version of the app getting the same information as the website version.)

Another benefit to having more social information displayed: It gives users more hooks to play with the tool. Yes, the data is very interesting. But with over 600 indicators, I found myself not going as deep into the data as I probably could have; it just got overwhelming at some point. Seeing the titles of other people's graphs probably would have kept me tinkering around a bit longer. I played around with the pre-made "example" graphs more than making my own graphs, in fact.

The Larger Picture

You won't comprehend the full power of Gapminder unless you watch at least one of Rosling's TED talks. His passion and style makes him a joy to watch. As TED notes, "With the drama and urgency of a sportscaster, statistics guru Hans Rosling debunks myths about the so-called 'developing world.'"

Rosling is a master at understanding global statistics and communicating the underlining trends they reveal. But what I find most admirable about Rosling is his commitment to making important information and insights understandable by everyone. Freeing public data from database hell so that it can be used by experts and laypersons alike is one of his goals. It was also the impetus behind creating Gapminder.

In a Gapcast titled "Free Statistics for Democracy," Rosling explains in his typical humorous style that his target audience consists of "children below 12 and heads of state. Because they both, they don't want people to show them boring graphs, you know and pretend. They want to see for themselves."

While children and global leaders are on his target list, his real audience is you and me: "The main decision makers we have aren't government, it's not policy makers; it's the public... Decision making, policy setting is done by the public in a democracy. So we have to change. Statistics means bookkeeping of the state. Serving the decision makers within the state."



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