Hans Rosling, who died last Tuesday, was my friend and mentor for 25 years. He was a man who cared about facts. He was passionate about statistics. He pioneered new ways of visualizing data, bringing dry figures to colourful life. But Hans’ primary mission was not about data, it was about people.
Hans recognized that to do good, we first need to understand the world we live in and the problems we are trying to solve, and then we need to inspire people to take action. He was a fervent advocate of a ‘fact-based worldview’, solid in the conviction that understanding and appreciation of facts leads to better-informed views, sounder policy, more effective action and ultimately, greater impact for real people.
Hans was not an ivory tower academic. He was a qualified doctor and spent time in the field, working with some of the most deprived communities in the world. In Mozambique, where he worked for two years, he was one of only two qualified doctors in a hospital serving a population of 300,000 people. He led important research into Konzo, an epidemic paralytic disease that affects remote rural areas of low-income countries in Africa. Hans understood the very real needs and hopes of the people behind the statistics, and this fueled his passion and commitment.
Hans recognized that data was critical, but not sufficient. “Having the data is not enough. I have to show it in ways that people both enjoy and understand,” he says at the start of this talk on the BBC. He made statistics sing, and delivered his presentations with the passion and energy of a sports commentator. Hans used unexpected tactics to grasp his audience’s attention, making use of ropes, Lego figures, Ikea boxes, a washing machine, toy cars, and a variety of other props. During one presentation, dressed in a circus strongman’s vest, Hans swallowed a steel sword to prove ‘that the seemingly impossible is possible.’
As well as being a ‘data rockstar’, Hans worked behind the scenes as a trusted counselor to governments, the United Nations, influential donors including Bill and Melinda Gates, and to academics. His advice and wisdom had tangible impact on policy and programming in countries around the world. He also had important impact on development science, challenging powerful narratives and concepts. Hans argued, for example, that the labels ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ were meaningless in a world where most people in fact are ‘in the middle’, a reality now reflected in updated World Bank country classifications.
In a world where facts are increasingly under threat – and where ignorance and prejudice feed on distortions and inaccuracies – Hans’ mission to create a ‘fact-based world’ is more important than ever.
Hans’ death is a great loss to us at UNICEF, to the global health community, and to people all around the world. As UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake stated last week:
“Hans Rosling was not only a friend to his colleagues at UNICEF; he was a friend to the world’s children. No one used data more persuasively to make the case for why investing in the most disadvantaged children is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. We will miss him.”
We most certainly will…
Hans Rosling’s mission will be carried forward by his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna through the Gapminder Foundation and the forthcoming Hans Rosling Open Academy, currently being established according to his wishes by family and friends. Find out more at www.gapminder.org. Hans’ own wish was for people to donate to UNICEF in his memory. Feel proud and donate to Rosling’s memory here.
Stefan Peterson is currently Chief of Health Section for UNICEF globally, based in New York. He’s a Professor of Global Health at Uppsala University and, prior to that, at the Global Health Division of Karolinska Institute. He has also been a visiting professor at Makerere University in Uganda. He has done extensive field work in Tanzania and Uganda and is a co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres Sweden.