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.


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
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
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 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

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.