Friday, July 6, 2007

Re: Beautiful statistics

This is sort of a reply to LS post "Beautiful statistics" about Hans Rosling's TED speech. I put it here instead of posting a comment since the comments lack so much functionality and is more than just a little bit "kludgy" to use. Are you listening, blogger? Or maybe I am just trying to use a hammer as a screwdriver here, a blog might not be the best tool for an ongoing online discussion...

Anyway, Hans Rosling's, funded by SIDA, developed their own software, trendalyzer, to access the data and to present it with animations. Google was so impressed they bought out the software and it's developers for an unnamed sum. Google say they have the ambition to develop it to a more general tool, freely available, for visualizing data so there might be a program or function in their "Google apps" from them in the future so you can do this kind of presentation yourself.

Until then, maybe Swivel or Many Eyes might be useful? If you already have done the analysis and just want the animations, perhaps Adobe Director is worth a try? I used it some when I was involved in an animated movie project.

The gapminder's online version of trendalyzer preloaded with data can be found here. It is suggested that the analytics/animation software used to be available at (this may not be accurate) but it is gone now. Hmm, are the swedish taxpayers getting their money's worth?

Hans Rosling said in his TED presentation: "The problem is not ignorance, it is preconceived ideas", which I think is very true. And what happens when the data challenges our preconceptions, or even worse, our agendas? An example is an article in Scientific American, named "Social Welfare State, beyond Ideology" where the wealth and economies of free market, low taxation countries (US, Australia, UK) were compared with countries with high taxation and extensive/expensive social security (Scandinavia). The numbers were not in the former's favor. The discussion that the article spurred showed how hard it can be when data confronts ideology.
This is all from memory, maybe I need to re-read the article. (Edit: found it online, but it is an abridged version.)

And another example of how things are presented that links closely to Rosling's TED speech is how during The Live Aid in 1985 pictures of the healthy Ethiopian upper class and jet set wasn't aired, it wouldn't exactly have helped the fundraisers cause. Or maybe that Google, now owner of trendalyzer, are part of the "Great firewall of China" filtering out the web search hits that opposes the chinese government's agenda.

Google in China vs Sweden :

If I sound too much like a cynic I just want to make clear that I don't want to diminish the Ethiopian catastrophe.

On a related note, in a few days I'll watch Michael Moore's "Sicko". Hopefully it is better than Farenheit 9/11 that was relevant but not well executed in my opinion.

(Listening to while posting: Squeaky birds)


LS said...

It is all about how to present your data, right? I really like this discussion, reminds me a lot about Tufte's ideas that data should be visually correct and accessible. He really dislikes powerpoint, and I am getting closer to that too. The best presentations I have seen uses a Mac program, but often people overdo it with too much animation, too much color, too much large text or too much small text.

I looked up Many Eyes and Swivel, and it seems like those are sites to put up your own graphs, not software to make data readable. I am sitting with tables and tables of data, but how do I get the message across.

And then, the message of course - this is the most important. What are we really trying to show? And suddenly we are on the edge of marketing, propaganda, politics (remember Goebbels?), and what is politically correct or not. Maybe it is not OK to show that the third world is doing better? I wonder, OK to who? The third world countries, the industrialized nations? Suddenly we are into the media conglomerate too - who decides what is news or not?

Each country/politician is probably cherry-picking all data and graphs for the things that make them feel the best, or can be used to whatever purpose they want.

LS said...

PS. My research website is also inaccessible in China.

O.K. said...

One question that pops up in my head now, can you really separate form and message? My gut feeling is that you cant. As for presentation programs (I guess you are thinking of Keynote for mac) they can only suggest a good behavior to the user through features and layout. I'm sure you can make just as hideous presentations with Keynote as with Powerpoint, you just have to wrestle the program a little more... ;)

I think you most often are not helping to solve a problem by being too PC about it, as I see it that mostly hinders a good analysis. The problem is that people use the word in very different ways. It is not unusual for some to label everything they disagree with as PC. Maybe PC should stand for preconceptions instead of politically correct. That way it works in both situations?

As for the third worlds situation, especially most countries of africa, I belive that it does not serve them to paint the whole continent in black and put the blame on the western world, even though it is well meant. My opinion is that people in general (in my surroundings) are very fatigue of giving and of being blamed for situations they feel they cannot control. Big parts of africa could be very prosperous, and when it comes to subjects like Shell and others exploiting Nigeria, there could be things done about it locally too if there was a genuine will to. To make a drastic point, look at Venezuela (I'm really not proposing their actions!).

How's that for being politically correct? ;)

Maybe we should have "propaganda of the day" in addition of "stamp of the day"? I nominate this post!

O.K. said...

"PS. My research website is also inaccessible in China."

Of course, just imagine what would happen if the average chinese learned about botany!

LS said...

Of course form and message are different things - you can evaluate the form even if you don't know the language of the message (like an ad in Hindi). But I think I understand what you are trying to say - that the form is interlinked with the message and affects the message dramatically, which I completely agree with.

Another thought, preconceptions... Can they we proven to be true facts, and at what point does a preconception become a postconception... after you have realized that something was presented in the wrong light. Obviously there is a historical delay too. Like in the Rosling data analysis, where 30 years ago there was a huge difference between the western industrialized nations and the third world, but now the differences are becoming smaller. At what point does this new data become the preconception for future data changes? Isn't all our previous knowledge and thoughts preconceptions? What is the difference between preconceptions and historical or current facts? Where do you draw the line? Interesting thoughts...

LS said...

Did you hear that South America is starting an alternative to the World Bank and IMF, with Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia as large partners. That will shake things up a bit!

O.K. said...

Even if you don't understand hindi the ad can still communicate associations and emotions through its form. Just take a look at runestones. What it communicates will not be universal though. The question is how universal raw content is, if you hypothetically could create such a thing. Example, music notation. The interpretation and instrumentation have a large part in deciding whether you like the music or not. I still think form and content weaved together creates the impression.

And for PC I say: As a general rule general rules don't work... ;)

Just look at the debacle about Pippi Longstocking and her dad, "Negerkung i söderhavet...". It wasn't written in todays cultural context, but can be read that way.

O.K. said...

Another thing that struck me while watching the TED speech was that if you want to lessen the perceived differences, use logarithmic scales... Are they relevant when comparing economies, or is that just polish? Any thoughts on that?

LS said...

I think redoing the income graphs with logarithmic scale would be completely unfair to the poor people. It would make the rich feel better, because the difference doesn't look to big, but most people don't know how to read a log graph, so they would think the difference is only twice as much money when it might be tenfold or more money. Keep it simple is my suggestion.

I agree with the cultural context, both that it changes historically and from culture to culture. Do you think cultures are becoming more homogenized today, or that different cultures instead are getting more attention because of the internet?

O.K. said...

Redoing the graphs? He _did_ show them with logarithmic scales! Look here, it is the default setting (I just realized that there was a linear setting too).

I don't know much about how these things are usually done, but it feels a little dishonest to me. But maybe it makes the trends stand out better?

O.K. said...

There is definitely cultural converging going on, and it has been going on for a very long time. As an example there are lots of languages on the brink of extinction.
We are a perfect example of that, two swedes communicating in english. Hmmm...

LS said...

I didn't realize he had logaritmic scales - probably only to fit in onto the same screen. Well, that is unfair! But he does show the trends, they come through with the logaritmic scale too, but the differences between countries seem smaller.

We are only speaking English so the rest of the family will understand, right :) We save the Swedish for the secret.
Yes, languages are becoming extinct, but I also think this internet thing also creates linkages to new cultures that you would never have heard of before. If that creates a hodgepodge (like when you mix all colors on your palette and it turns into brown ugliness), or a creative new way of preserving cultural differences, I don't know. I am afraid lots of small cultures will loose their identities, knowledge, and traditions in the end, and everything will be Englified. But don't forget about China and India, they are enourmous in Asia in their influence. And in India there are lots of cultures co-existing. The problem is massmedia I think, TV and multinational companies that market the same thing all over the world. I do not like McDonalds...

O.K. said...

"...multinational companies that market the same thing all over the world"

Ingvar "Darth" Kamprad of IKEA empire strikes back, building a death star out of particle board! Resistance is futile! :D