Hans Rosling’s Gapminder shows world’s health trends over 200 years

It is encouraging to see ABC use crowd sourcing platform Ushahidi to map the Queensland floods from its audience’s perspective. Ushahidi means testimony in Kiswahili and works best when there are many people witnessing the same large event. It was developed to allow people to map incidents when ethnic violence erupted in Kenya in late 2007 and proved influential in exposing fraud in the 2009 Namibian election.

It is great to see the innovative tool here and it reminds me of my favourite thing on the Internet right now. It is a four minute video by Swedish doctor and professor of statistics Hans Rosling produced by the BBC. Rosling has developed remarkable statistics software called Gapminder which has a brilliant way of interpreting statistics in an informative and compelling way.


In this BBC video he shovels 120,000 sets of numbers from world census surveys through his program  He plots the data by countries of the world since 1810 on a graph where the x-axis is income per person and the y-axis is life expectancy in years. Near coordinates 0,0 are the sick and poor, and near n,n are the very healthy and wealthy. In fast forward, we can see 200 years of trends flashing in front of our eyes as two centuries of data is plotted on the graph.

In 1810 every country is clustered in the lowest quadrant. The UK and the Netherlands were better than the rest on both indicators, though life expectancy was only 40 years and average per capita income less than $3,000. By 1860 the Nordic countries Norway, Sweden and Denmark led the way with remarkable 10-year improvements in life expectancy. Pax Britannica meant the UK was still the wealthiest in the world and its new colonies in Australia and New Zealand weren’t far behind though life expectancy was low. The US was also catching up.

Fast forward 50 years and Scandinavia was still the healthiest part of the world with average life expectancy pushing 60 years. New Zealand and Australia were seeing the benefits of their remarkable riches (second and third wealthiest in the world behind the US) to push life expectancy above 50. With the exception of colonial countries Canada and Argentina, the European countries were next highest on both indicators, though Japan was rising quickly. At the bottom, average life expectancy was just 22 years in Bangladesh and 23 in India.

By 1960, the discrepancy between rich and poor was pronounced. Most of Europe, North America, the colonial countries and Japan were achieving life expectancy of 70 years. The US and Switzerland were pulling away with average incomes up to $20,000. Small oil-rich states such as Brunei and Qatar were averaging over $40,000 though life expectancy was lower. China had slumped to the bottom as it suffered through the famine trauma of the Great Leap Forward. Yet the Chinese were still living ten years longer than they did in 1910. African countries were the poorest but surprisingly healthy with Lesotho people living to 47 years on just $365 (literally a dollar a day).

In 1985 Brunei and Qatar were still the wealthiest countries and their citizens were living longer too. The Japanese were living an average 78 years making them the healthiest in the world. All First World countries were clustered close behind. The developing nations were catching up quickly. Countries such as Mexico, Latvia, Ukraine, Albania and even North Korea were averaging 70 year lifespans. The five biggest Asian nations (China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh) were still poor but beginning to make a charge. Post-colonial Africa was bringing up the rear. Yet even in the poorest country, Mozambique on just $366, the average lifespan was three years higher than Britain in 1810.

In 2009, Japan is still the long-living nation in the world, now averaging 83 years. Its ageing population has new challenges for economists and demographers. But most of the West is now averaging 80 years with an average wage clustered around $30,000. Qatar remains the richest country in the world (a clue to why a country of 1.1 million has won the right to host the World Cup in 2022). Most of the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and the Pacific were also living longer than 70 years. There were improvements at the bottom too. War-torn Afghanistan was the least healthiest country in the world, living just 44 years. Remarkably even there both indicators have remarkably improved since 1994. The equally war-torn DRC (Congo) is now the poorest country with an average salary of just $359 (less than the poorest in 1960) but the Congolese still live to 48 years.

Rosling notes there are massive discrepancies within countries. If Shanghai was a country, it would be in the top 1 percentile. Similarly Australians live for 82 years and enjoy an average wage of $34,327 but if the Indigenous population was measured alone, it would be much worse. Despite the discrepancies across the world Rosling’s imaginative graph makes a powerful point: the trend is for higher earnings and longer lifespans is worldwide. Projecting out to 2060, all countries are pushing towards “n,n”. Feeding all these long-living people in a world of catastrophic climate change is beyond the powers of this data, but is engrossing food for thought.

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