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Jesse Robbins

Jesse Robbins

Unveiling the Beauty of Statistics

I presented last week at the OECD World Forum in Istanbul along with Professor Hans Rosling, Mike Arrington, John Gage and teams from MappingWorlds, Swivel (disclosure: I am an adviser to Swivel) and Many Eyes. We were the "Web2.0 Delegation" and it was an incredible experience.

The Istanbul Declaration signed at the conference calls for governments to make their statistical data freely available online as a "public good." The declaration also calls for new measures of happiness and well-being, going beyond just economic output and GDP. This requires the creation of new tools, which the OECD envisions will be "wiki for progress." Expect to hear more about these initiatives soon.

This data combined with new tools like Swivel and MappingWorlds is powerful. Previously this information was hard to acquire and the tools to analyze it were expensive and hard to use, which limited it's usefulness. Now, regular people can access, visualize and discuss this data. Creating an environment where knowledge can be shared and explored.

H.G. Wells predicted that "Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read or write." Proponents of specific public policies often use statistics to support their view. They have the ability to select the data to fit with the policy. Democratization of statistics allows citizens to see the data that doesn't fit the policy, giving the public the power to challenge policymakers with new interpretations.

I highly recommend you watch Professor Rosling's exceptional summary of these exciting changes (where I got the title for this post), as well as his talks at TED.

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Comments: 12

Noah Iliinsky   [07.11.07 05:03 PM]

You only mention this briefly, but I think it bears repeating: the real benefit that Swivel, Many Eyes, etc., contribute is the added value of easy visualization and analysis of the data, and the shared commentary and collaboration of the community. This ease of analysis is much more powerful that mere dissemination of raw data, as it really facilitates understanding.

For example, Professor Rosling is famous for his visualizations and animated (pun intended) analysis, not for the raw numbers he presents. He makes the available data accessible.

Jesse Robbins   [07.11.07 05:14 PM]

I loved Hans' metaphor of notes, instruments, and musicians. I think that there will be few musicians, but hopefully lots and lots of fans of the music.

Jesse Robbins   [07.11.07 07:53 PM]

Also, you should learn about the Istanbul Declaration from Enrico Giovannini's own words:

Chris Vail   [07.11.07 07:56 PM]

How many people enjoying recordings of musical performances also perform on musical instruments? Why do so many people listen to popular music rather than (whatever your favorite "good" music happens to be)? It is because most people would rather watch a video than interact with the data.

This is a problem.

I don't see how this problem can be fixed. When the Soviet Union scared the US with Sputnik, the US started teaching "new math", which is what I was brought up with. I've taken enough math courses to realize that math is taught poorly in the US, with the result that most people in the US (including my mother, a post-grad) have not passed a class in statistics, never mind applied logic, group theory, control theory, analytics, modeling, etc. These people, devoid of statistics, may be entertained (and misled) by people using the new statistical visualization technology, because they have no individual ability to judge the statistical reasoning that they see. And there is no longer a Soviet Union to scare the US into doing something to improve mathematical education. And I don't see a financial incentive to spend the amount of resources to do so (in the US).

If the European countries can educate their entire population to use statistical reasoning, and then demonstrate that complex social and technical problems can be solved via participatory democracy at significantly less cost and greater returns on investment, then the US (and China) will take notice. Until then, I think Wells' prediction regarding citizenship will be fulfilled in the negative.

hugh   [07.13.07 09:37 AM]

This OECD pronouncement is huge, I think. if it's adhered to ... did all OECD members sign up?

Jesse Robbins   [07.13.07 10:43 AM]

Hugh, that was my understanding from the conference and subsequent meetings with Enrico Giovannini.

During the closing session of the Forum, the OECD proposed a Global Project on “Measuring the Progress of Societies”. International organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme and representatives from OECD countries and from African, Asian, Latin American and Middle-Eastern countries expressed their commitment to join in this endeavour.

I put the full video of The Istanbul Declaration in Enrico Giovannini's own words on the Swivel blog.

Sam   [07.13.07 02:45 PM]

Some of the volunteers have produced a free version of the flash interface based on the gapminder lead, and put UNCD (more soon) and UK Member of Parliament data into it.

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howard gutknecht   [10.12.07 02:46 PM]

I like Chris' thought on how little people use stats and analytical math in the U.S. What is the immediate personal result of this? I don't get great value when I buy something? What is the long-term result? We collectively elect people who aren't able to use stats and analytical math. I recently read Edward Tufte's "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within."
It's an interesting look at a long list of PP problems, and only 30 pages to read - much shorter than Tufte's other books. The tables on swivel seem, on surface, to avoid these problems, but one of Tufte's points is that PowerPoint tends to be linear - it's a progression of, say, 20 slides. You can't ask the presenter to show slides 12, 13, and 14 side-by-side so you can compare and contrast. So a snapshot of literacy rates or infant mortality by country gives me indicators. Showing that data over time produces trends, but even with that information how do people understand causation?

Jesse Robbins   [10.12.07 08:50 PM]


Enrico Giovannini, Chief Statistician from the OECD does a pretty good job of explaining what the aim of all of this is.


howard gutknecht   [11.01.07 09:51 AM]

I played Giovanni's talk. He alludes to a chart showing the relationship between trust in public officials and belief that political decisions are based on solid evidence. The chart isn't shown. I am left to try to imagine. I can certainly imagine instances where political decisions aren't based on solid evidence, or even aligned with the public's vote on referenda and initiative ballot measures. Take the decision to build a baseball stadium here in Seattle. And a sizeable fraction of the voting public doesn't seem to be looking at solid evidence, since it isn't evident in their daily newspapers or on their cable screens. As we saw at BarCampBank, credit unions aren't doing the best job of controlling brick-and-mortar overhead, and aren't trying very hard to give their members loans at the lowest interest they could, or offer investment CD's at the highest interest they could. And you are effectively blocked from starting a new credit union. I think this is related to the fact that a rate table is posted in the financial section of a newspaper, but the public can't compare the overhead costs of the Boeing Credit Union to the "best practices" credit union - which may be in Madison, WI. And the public is presented with warring experts when trying to decide if a surface-street solution is better than a $10 billion underground tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
I have been working with Stephen Krempl and Ed Skarbek of to do some demos of 3 projector presentation systems. This enables you to show three scenarios side-by-side, and asking the audience to compare/contrast. I think this would go a long way toward making useful knowledge easier to understand. Anyone know of some venues with very wide white walls?

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