The Gapminder website opens with the provocation that you are probably wrong. Wrong about important subjects like global warming, migration, poverty and international conflicts. For the average intellectually-leaning person who (like me) considers themselves reasonably well-informed, it is hard not to read on – to prove them wrong, of course. If you are up to learning from your mistakes, Gapminder is a great way to, as they put it, “upgrade your worldview”. I’ve played around on the site for some time now and I think it qualifies as a Fine Learning Tool.

Founded in 2005 by Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, and Hans Rosling, Gapminder describes itself as an “independent educational non-profit fighting global misconception”. It is a Swedish foundation promoting a fact-based worldview, as opposed to a pessimistic or naïvely optimistic one. The founders argue that there are statistics available that can inform a realistic view of the world, but that people are largely ignorant of the facts. The Gap which they are trying to close is the one between common perceptions and the data.

Gapminder is a set of tools that you can use to address your own ignorance. It includes quizzes to help you to identify your misconceptions and information to help you to correct them, as well as free teaching materials. Information is presented using bubble graphs that map data over time. For example, you can see life expectancy mapped against income. Each country is represented by a bubble which grows and shrinks in size and moves as the graph follows its trajectory over time. Many of these visualisations are interactive so that you can choose which countries or regions to compare. There are also videos that explain things like how people are distributed across the planet and how reliable population forecasts are. My personal favourite is a visual database (Dollar Street) of people and how they live, all over the world.

The claim that you are probably wrong, is based on collected responses from thousands of people, which they have compared to the data to identify the most common misconceptions. The quizzes address a range of topics, including progress towards the United Nations development goals, and can be specific to a country or region. This is a great way to expand your understanding of parts of the world you may never have visited. Questions are multiple-choice with three possible answers. After answering each question, you are presented with data about the question, the misconception it uncovers as well as what proportion of people get it wrong. This allows you to wonder at the extent of general ignorance and helps to mollify the embarrassment of your own mistakes.

Dollar Street organises images of everyday activities into “streets” that represent countries. Each “street” includes families from different economic levels, so it can be used to show discrepancies within countries and similarities across countries, but within economic bands. The images can be focused on specific themes, such as food and housing. It also has a section that tells you more about each family featured. I did wonder about the ethics of photographing families for Dollar Street, and could not find any information on the Dollar Street FAQ about that.

DescriptionA set of tools that help you to learn about the world, demographics, economies, development, progress towards the United Nations development goals, international conflict and environmental issues.
Subjectglobal development, conflict, environment, economy, society, United Nations sustainable development goals
Appropriate forAnyone who wants to be well informed about the state of the world, and is reasonably proficient in English.
UsabilityThe site is generally easy to use. It’s easy to get through the quizzes and the interactive visualisations are illuminating and intuitive. There is a good tour of Dollar Street that introduces the concept and explains how to use it. At times the interface can be confusing. For example, once you are in Dollar Street or the “upgrader” part of the website, it’s hard to get back to the home page. It appears that the website is only available in English.
CraftsmanshipCare has gone into the construction of the site and presentation of the information which makes it a pleasure to use. The data presentation is masterful. The data sources are disclosed, and there are links to where you can download the datasets. The user experience can be unsettling because nobody likes to be proved wrong, but if you approach it with an open mind, it is great to have access to so much evidence-backed information.
CostThe site is mostly free to use, consistent with the educational focus. It also offers customised data visualisations which must be paid for. The foundation is funded by these services and donations. Included are teaching materials, visualisations, videos, frameworks, data downloads, presentations and posters.
EffectivenessI couldn’t find any analysis of the effectiveness of the site. Has it really upgraded people’s world views? This may be very difficult to evaluate. The website and the book, Factfulness, have won a string of awards between 2002 and 2020, which are listed. In 2018, Bill Gates gave a copy of the book to all college graduates in the United States, which shows that Bill Gates supports the work. There is no data on how many graduates read the book 😊. The work has been featured in the media and the website lists universities, organisations and businesses that make use of their ideas and tools. The book has been translated into 45 languages and has sold more than 2,5 million copies.

I thought I was pretty well informed but, outside of the topic of education, I got lots of the answers wrong. You might not want to do this with colleagues! Despite the potential for embarrassment, Gapminder will probably improve your understanding of the world if you take some time to dig around, mull over the data and are open to changing your mind.


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