A reality check on the power of data
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A reality check on the power of data

Rae Ritchie — June 2019
The big decisions that shape our futures — whether made by policymakers, business leaders or ourselves — need to be informed by a fact-based worldview. Anna Rosling Rönnlund, co-author of the bestseller Factfulness, talks about how tech is both supporting and distorting our perception of what’s authentic.

Anna Rosling Rönnlund is on a mission against misinformation. One of the co-authors of the 2018 bestseller Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world — and why things are better than you think, she set out to fight misconceptions about global development and the often ill-informed decisions that impact the lives of many people in developing countries.

But in an era of fake news, the spread of disinformation on social media, different ‘versions of the truth’ and the potential for technologies such as AI and VR to distort perceptions of our reality, the importance of factfulness in many other aspects of our lives has become abundantly clear.

The book (written with her father-in-law, professor Hans Rosling, and statistician husband Ola Rosling) has certainly caught the imagination of high-profile figures. Barack Obama described it as: “A hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases,” while Bill Gates said it is: “One of the most important books I’ve ever read — an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.”

““Anna”
Anna Rosling Rönnlund (Image: Jann Lipka)
The work sprang from the author’s cofounding of the Swedish non-profit Gapminder Foundation. To make data understandable, Rosling Rönnlund and her husband created the Trendalyzer software system, which generates animated bubble charts as data visualization aids. The power of Trendalyzer came to the attention of Google, which acquired the technology in 2007 and took on its team.

In 2010, Rosling Rönnlund and Rosling returned to Gapminder to focus on developing free teaching materials. In the process, they set out to measure public knowledge of facts that underpin important policy decisions and soon discovered that people from all walks of life have a grossly inaccurate worldview — and the concept of factfulness was born.

Since then, Rosling Rönnlund has exposed the myopic worldviews in other ways. Her Dollar Street initiative is a dynamic visual comparison of people’s everyday lives, based on a rolling series of photographs of 264 families in 50 countries. It paints a more accurate picture of what different people mean by a word such as ‘stove’ or ‘toilet’ — which, as she points out, is much removed from the narrow, Westernized worldview presented to anyone Googling those terms.
Factfulness“The stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts. First, we measure what people know about the world, then we give them the facts and frameworks needed [to identify misinformation]. Finally, we provide thinking tools for being more fact-based.”
Anna Rosling Rönnlund on…
The influence of tech
“I’m not sure if it’s technology that’s distorting our worldviews because technology of itself can’t do that. It will always be humans who develop things and humans who package them. It is human error that ends up in AI and algorithms — so the biggest problem is how our brains work.”
Solving global problems“Every single technology has its problem but I think the potential of tech is more important than those. Technology is definitely the solution to many of the world’s major problems and we have only seen the start of its power.”
Democratization of information“Thanks to technology, for the first time in history we have democratic access to information.”
The application of AI“The biggest contribution that technologies such as AI can make is in identifying key points in data so that we can figure out what’s going on in a much faster and more effective way.
The importance of data literacy“Ten or 20 years from now, decision-making will be much more professional because data literacy will be broader. We will have learnt to use data in a smart way.”

• Read more on Factfulness and Dollar Street at Gapminder.org
First published June 2019
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