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Open Knowledge Festival third day (Thu 20.9.) opened in a controversial way and closed up with a wave of sheer enthusiasm.

The morning first talk was held by Finland´s former Prime Minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki, presently working at the EU Parliament: her visit was an unexpected one for this kind of audience and a courageous choice on her part. Jäätteenmäki´s career has been spotted by an act of lack of transparency, known as Irak-gate: elected in March 2003 for the Centre Party, she had to resign in June, accused to have used confidential Foreign Ministry documents for political purposes during the election campaign, against her rival Paavo Lipponen. The documents contained diplomatic information from a meeting between George W.Bush and Lipponen, where the latter would have offered Finnish support to the international coalition, a breach against Finnish official policy of neutrality – in a country where most of the people considered the Iraq war an illegal war of aggression. Jäätteenmäki had to resign rapidly, having lost the trust of both her party and the Paliament.

In spring 2003 Finland was probably the only country in the world where both Prime Minister and President were women. Some inferred that Jäätteenmäki´s conduct was heavily sanctioned also because of her gender. The affair showed indeed a mixture of lack of transparency and political clumsiness.

Her talk at OKFest didn´t convince either. If it may be true that the European Commission has moved forward since 2008 to nowadays, with its growing interest in open data, quoting ACTA ´s rejection as a victory of direct democracy sounded quite demagogical. A couple of provocative questions about EU´s lack of transparency came from the audience: “why farmsubsidies (about 55 billions € per year) are not published anymore?” On the contrary “in Latvia if you get any cent from EU it is instantly of public domain”, someone commented. And: “what do you think about the process leading up to EFSF and ERM and other European financial stability instruments? The process has been very closed”. She answered as she could,  pleading for more transparency in financial instruments and the European Central Bank ´s conduct, without anyway saying anything substantial.

Hans Rosling ´s evening speech contrasted sharply, with its combination of experienced brilliance and an impressive amount of facts. A professor of global health at Stockholm Karolinska Institutet, he spent two decades in rural Africa as a physician, tracking the causes of a rare form of paralytic disease. He is among the founders of Médecins sans Frontièrs (Doctors without Borders) in Sweden and of the Gapminder Foundation, a non-profit venture which aims to increase public conscience about how the world is changing and make statistical information widely understandable.

With a mixture of pragmatism, understatement and irresistible sense of humour, Rosling ranged over some major subjects, from population trends and their supposed impact about the environment, to poverty, new political balances and climate change.

But he especially insisted about one thing, the need to break clichés which circulate at large: “save all the poor children, and the environment will be destroyed”, “all Chinese cannot have a car” or “rainforest people live in balance with nature”. What´s wrong in these catch-phrases?

Data in hand, he maintained that “the demographical bomb” will not explose, due to facts that balance each other in the decades: if it´s true that Africa will double its population before 2050, and Asia will grow of another billion units, on the other hand the combination of prevention and difficult life conditions (e.g. in crisis areas) is already causing a shrinkage of the births. Frequent question like “why are there more children per woman in muslim countries?” prove to be totally wrong, as this is often not anymore the case: prejudice, ideology and ignorance often veil our eyes. Rosling affirmed that population in history has always been a constant, balanced by many concurrent factors. If it will take a certain time to decrease, it won´t certainly increase exponentially, as we fear. Followed the funniest scientific demonstration I ever attended! If you´re curious have a look here (starts at 56´37´´):

The modernized world is “no doubt a better world“, e.g. compared to the Middle Ages, when infant mortality was still dramatically high (as in the rainforest today), still “it is not good“. If China has the largest foreign exchange reserve in the world, with a consistent minority of new riches, 60% of the world population lives with 2-10 dollars a day, while 20% (in the so-called Western world) ownes 74% of the wealth. An unbroken silence filled the auditorium, as Rosling displayed the most dramatic data about poverty and child mortality, sharply contrasting with the laughters we shared a minute before.

The atmosphere changed again, with a brilliant commentary of the photo of the leaders of G20 summit 2008, during the blast of global financial crisis caused by the US:

Bush, the advocate of democracy, stands near Lula, not exactly a democrat (and moreover lending 30 billion dollars to the US); Sarkozy finds himself between a muslim and a buddhist (!), and so on. Rosling found many examples to support his opinion, the Western world is doomed to sink under its “toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance“. The term developing countries is a false one, they will be very soon the world, concentrating the most of the world population. “There is no such thing as we and them, and even less in the future”.

OKFest auditorium

The only hope is recovering from ignorance, fill the gap in our minds between what we think to know and what the data tell us, to accept and realize how the real world is changing (look at the beautiful interactive graphs, available together with the data, on Gapminder´s site). He anyway affirmed that open data and infovisualization are wonderful tools, but will not solve the problems per se: communication is central, to make data comprehensible and useful, and enhance global conscience.

And also environmental conscience, “climate is a too serious issue to be dealt with environmental activists” (!) Climate change is a fact, “we can observe daily the dramatic diminution of the ice at the poles: not only the area diminishes, but the ice grows thinner every day, will absorb more light, melt even faster and so on.

How our countries should report? We are not investing seriously in green technology, renewable energies. We need a serious debate about energy and resources, less emotional and more fact-based; look less at details and consider more the macro situation“.

He concluded, “watch The magic washing machine video, think about it: 7 billions people, everyone 1 washing machine!”

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