It was his first Ted talk that thrust renowned Swedish academic Hans Rosling into the international spotlight in 2006, billed as the man in whose hands data sings. Since then, the statistician more likely to illustrate an idea with a few multi-coloured lego bricks than a PowerPoint has been described as everything from a data guru to a Jedi master of data visualisation.
He died on Tuesday, aged 68, after a year-long illness, surrounded by his family in Uppsala, Sweden.
A professor of international health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, Rosling liked to call himself an “edutainer”. A talented presenter, whose signature animated data visualisations have featured in dozens of film clips, the statistician used humour and often unlikely objects such as children’s toys, cardboard boxes and teacups to liven up data on wealth, inequality and population.
Rosling’s work featured in a BBC4 documentary on The Joy of Stats, and he presented Don’t Panic – the Truth about Population on BBC2. He was also involved in founding the Swedish chapter of Medécins Sans Frontières, according to Swedish media reports. When the Ebola outbreak led to states of emergency being declared in Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, Rosling went out to Monrovia to work with the Liberian government on their emergency response, tracking cases and pinpointing missing data.
Time magazine included him in its 2012 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, saying his “stunning renderings of the numbers … have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways”.
But in an interview in the Guardian, in 2013, he was dismissive about his impact on knowledge. Asked what had surprised him the most about the reaction he had received, he said: “It’s that I became so famous with so little impact on knowledge. Fame is easy to acquire, impact is much more difficult. When we asked the Swedish population how many children are born per woman in Bangladesh, they still think it’s four to five. I have no impact on knowledge. I have only had impact on fame, and doing funny things, and so on.”
Claire Provost, a former Guardian journalist who interviewed Rosling in 2013, said: “Given the timing, with all the talk about fake news, alternative facts, concern over misinformation and propaganda-by-numbers, Rosling stood for the exact opposite – the idea we can have debates about what could or should be done, but that facts and an open mind are needed before informed discussions can begin.”
Daniel Ek, the CEO of Spotify, tweeted: “I am deeply saddened by the news of the passing of my friend, @HansRosling. Few Swedes had an impact such as his.”
Sweden’s deputy prime minister, Isabella Lövin, wrote on Facebook: “ … For the world, Hans Rosling was a great fighter for the right to health, for reducing maternal mortality and for supporting fragile countries damaged by conflict. He challenged the whole world’s view of development with his amazing teaching skills. He managed to show everyone that things are moving forward … I think the whole world will miss his vision and his way of standing up for the facts – unfortunately it feels like they are necessary more than ever at the moment – so the loss is even more painful.”
A statement was posted on Gapminder, the foundation he co-founded with his son and daughter-in-law in 2007: the venture was named after London Underground’s “mind the gap” notices in reference to bridging the divide between statistics and their interpretation. “We are extremely sad to announce that Professor Hans Rosling died this morning. Hans suffered from a pancreatic cancer which was diagnosed one year ago. He passed away early Tuesday morning, February 7, 2017, surrounded by his family in Uppsala, Sweden.
“Eleven years ago, the three of us, Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Rönnlund founded Gapminder. In 2007 Hans decided to “drop out” of university to work only 5% as professor at Karolinska Institute. That was a great decision. The 95% he worked for Gapminder made him a world famous public educator, or ‘edutainer’, as he liked to call it.
“Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!”
- Additional reporting by David Crouch