My Ode to Hans Rosling

Hans showing me his business card in Palm Springs, California.

Hans showing me his business card in Palm Springs, California.

TED asked me to contribute a post as part of their annual 31 Days of Ideas series. So I chose to write about Hans Rosling, who I only met a few months before he publicly announced his cancer.

You can read what I wrote here or here it is below:

I’m not interested in data; I’m interested in people and life
— Hans Rosling

For a long time, I dreamed of meeting Hans Rosling, a pioneer in human-centric data science (and a sword swallower). But when Hans sat next to me during a dinner in California a few years ago, I didn't even recognize him. I was so accustomed to watching his TED Talks on my computer screen over the years, including my all-time favorite, "The best stats you've ever seen."

While most people see the famed Swedish statistician as a numbers person, Hans understood that numbers were just a tool -- and no substitute for direct human understanding. "I'm not interested in data," Hans told me during our conversation. "I'm interested in people and life."

Like me, Hans expressed annoyance with the widespread application of big data without "thick data," or human insights. As an example, he told me about his recent work on containing the Ebola outbreak. He showed me his business card, which read: "Advisor on Ebola Epidemiology to the Republic of Liberia," and he proudly shared the news that the number of infections had dropped, crediting his collaboration with the epidemiologist and immunologist, Dr. Mosoka Fallah. Unlike other health officials, data science companies and NGOs, Dr. Fallah went into people's homes (always bearing food as a gift) and had conversations. He learned why villagers were following certain public health recommendations and not others, and then he worked together with the community to develop solutions for all.

This story is emblematic of Hans's belief that data scientists depend on their collaboration with experts on qualitative human insights, a theme that runs through all of his TED Talks. With an enthusiasm that will be recognizable to anyone who’s watched his talks, Hans spent the rest of our dinner giving me a statistics lesson on population growth, even running to grab 10 toilet paper rolls from the bathroom to use as a prop.

Though Hans is no longer with us, his spirit is a click away on TED. I hope his videos will inspire you with the message that statistics is a means to an end -- a route to serving all human beings with dignity and to opening access to things that have been systematically denied to much of the world. But Hans would want us to do more than watch his talks passively; his videos are a call for us to become advocates for the improvement of human life. 

A selfie with Hans in Palm Sprints

A selfie with Hans in Palm Sprints