Our World in Data

How would you like to be good at predicting the future? I mean, ever since we consulted Oracles in ancient Greece we’ve wanted to know what’s going to happen. Pinker, in Enlightenment Now, tells us about research into what makes people good at predicting, that identified “superforecasters”. These are people who are better than “professional intelligence officers with access to classified information” and “not too far from the theoretical maximum” when it comes to predicting the likelihood of future events.

It turns out that superforecasters do well because they rely on the facts that they do have at hand. They follow a particular method in arriving at a prediction – starting with what they know about events that have occurred, and then looking at what might have changed and nudging their probability estimates up or down in response. They are not even particularly clever people, although they are “highly numerate” and comfortable “thinking in guesstimates”.

If you want to join their ranks, today’s fine learning tool is going to prove invaluable, both as a tool to hone your own numeracy and to supply you with base facts from which to start your estimates.

I highly recommend this particular fine learning tool, and yet it’s hard to tell you just what you will learn from it, because it covers such a wide range of topics.

Our World in Data describes itself as “a non-profit website that brings together the data and research on the powerful, long-run trends reshaping our world”.

It’s a labour of love that takes the best data available on topics of interest that range from population growth and literacy rates to the impact of micro-nutrients on health and the global cost of cigarettes. They then put the data into beautiful interactive graphs and support them with easy to follow blog posts that explain both how the graphs are to be interpreted and what the data is saying about the subject.

Some of the interesting things I learned (just this morning) from Our World in Data include that, as recently as 1800 only 12% of people on the planet were literate, while in 2015, 86% were literate; Iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable brain damage in childhood; and Ireland is the most expensive country in the world to buy cigarettes.

The site uses beautiful interactive visualisations to discuss the state of the world and how it is changing and it uses scientific literature to explain the changes observed in the data. If that sounds scary, it isn’t because each “lesson” is contained in an easy-to-digest blog post.

What I love about this website is that it is based on data and quite a lot of effort goes into making sure that it’s the best data available. Data is sourced from specialised institutes, research papers and international institutions or statistical agencies. Each visualisation comes with details about what data was used and how it was used. What this means is that in addition to what the site tells you about the world, it also teaches you statistical concepts and improves your general numeracy in the process. It serves a little meta-learning on the side. Which is what the finest learning tools ought to do.

Description A source of information about major world trends backed by data and research and nicely interpreted to make it easy to understand
Subject Major world trends, data use and visualization
Location https://ourworldindata.org/
Appropriate for Anyone who wants to be well informed about the state of the world and wants to improve their numeracy
Usability The blog format makes it easy to understand each topic. There are graphs which may be a bit hard to understand if you are not used to interpreting data presented in this way. It is, however, a good way to learn more about data presentation and graphs.
Craftsmanship Lovely! A lot of thought has gone into the visualisations as well as the text so that the topics are accessible and give one the opportunity to learn new visualization techniques. The web site is clean and simple to navigate.
Effectiveness The site is widely used. It has a nice interactive map showing how many people from each country used the site in the past year; on average, it’s more than a million people a month. This, by itself, doesn’t mean its good, but the people who use the site include students and school children, journalists, teachers, researchers and policymakers, looking for the data and research to inform their work. So that means that a lot of thinking people rely on the site for information. This link takes you to citations and references https://ourworldindata.org/coverage.
Cost This site is free to use and you can even use the data and the visualisations for free.

What I love about this web site is that it presents information that is as close as we have to “factual” and thus encourages us to stop speculating, or making assumptions about the state of the world based on our own experiences or the state of the particular corners of the world we are familiar with. By being able to get a more global view of the state of things we can become better informed, and clearer about what is really going on. It’s a great tool for honing your forecasting skills, challenging your own assumptions and for settling arguments over dinner.

Our World in Data has a special section to track the Sustainable Development Goals https://sdg-tracker.org/ which is a good way to keep an eye on some of the biggest priorities for the human race and the planet. It also has a special Teaching Hub with resources for teachers https://ourworldindata.org/teaching.

A truly Fine Learning Tool and one well worth exploring.


(Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay.)


Institutional Theory

Institutional theory tries to describe how institutions emerge, are sustained and change over time. Institutions in this context are distinguished from organisations. This may be best illustrated by an example: higher education in an institution, but a particular university is an organisation. The institutions is larger and conceptual, the organisation is a particular instantiation of the institution.

Institution theory is best understood by extensive reading of the academic literature, but for those who want a quick access, here are some tools, none of them really fine:

The best source remains W. Richard Scott’s book: Institutions and Organisations, published by Sage. Here is the link to the 4th edition on Amazon. This is as accessible as any academic text in the social sciences (meaning not really), but it gives explanations of the concepts and how they fit together.

Author W. Richard Scott
Credentials Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University
Published 4th edition in 2013
Format Book
Length 360 pages
Accessibility Difficult: academic text

Wikipedia has a brief article on Institutional Theory, but it gives little more than the main points, together with some of the history and distinguishes between institutional theory and new institutional theory.

Author Wikipedia authors
Credentials Wikipedia authoring and review process
Published Last modified September 2016
Format Wiki
Length 838 words
Accessibility Medium: simplified academic text

The Theories Used in Information Systems Wiki has a nice, but brief, summary of the main points of Institutional Theory. It includes a list of articles in Information Systems research that have used Institutional Theory.

Author Academic staff and PhD students
Credentials Maintained by the University of Colorado and the Marriott School of Management of Brigham Young University
Published Last modified November 2014
Format Wiki
Length 2196 words
Accessibility Medium: simplified academic text

This ten minute presentation (slides and voice) by Michael Lower on Institutional Theory focuses on the similarity of organisations within an institution. Published in 2013, it’s a bit dry, but the explanations and structure are clear. The video forms part of the work towards a Doctorate in Higher Education Research Evaluation and Enhancement at Lancaster University.

Author Michael Lower
Credentials Faculty of Law, Chinese University of Hong Kong,
Published Published in 2013
Format Video (slides and voice)
Length 10 minutes
Accessibility Easy: simple explanations

Mauro Guillén presents the third lecture in a series titled “The Architecture of Collapse: The Global System in the 21st Century” at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. This lecture: “Isomorphism, Impermeability, and Institutional Diversity” illustrates the application of institutional theory in understanding global change. He addresses the questions: Are isomorphic forces taking over the world? To what extent are nodes in the global system impermeable to these forces? What are the implications for institutional diversity?

Author Mauro Guillén
Credentials Professor of International Management and Director of the Lauder Institute at the U of Pennsylvania
Published Published in May 2014
Format Video of live, in-class presentation
Length 48 minutes
Accessibility Difficult: the lecture is clear, but requires a good grasp of the concepts, and concentration, to follow

There is space for some really good tools for learning about Institutional Theory, tools that are clear, accessible and yet meaty; tools that are structured to allow different levels of engagement with the topic. Such tools would be fine.