He wants to redraw the map

10 June 2014

The newly appointed honorary doctor Hans Rosling and his wife Agneta, at the winter promotion 2014.

‘I do not care what people do with the knowledge, but we all need to learn the very basics about the state of the world if we are to live in it. Today, most people have an image that better matches Tintin’s reality. Meet Hans Rosling, honorary doctor who wishes to show us our new world.

“I'm not giving any personal portraits, okay! Few journalists ask me about the world, but since I became a celebrity, all everyone wants is personal portraits. The media is ineffective as a learning tool if the focus is on the teacher.’

Hans Rosling has obviously had enough of his role as the Swedish academic world’s cover boy. But do not mistake frustration for resignation. The coffee splashes when perhaps the foremost educator of our time bangs his fist on the table. The fact he will soon step onto the stage in the great hall as an honorary doctor at his Alma mater, Uppsala University, is nothing that dampens the joy of working, on the contrary.

‘The title does not include the right to work at Uppsala University, but I'm thinking positive and interpreting it as compensation for the fact I never had the chance to compete for a job in Uppsala. Instead, I had to commute to Solna for 20 years.’

No, Hans Rosling is definitely no friend of academic traditions. As a young Uppsala student he was the first student representative on the University council, but never visited student clubs.

‘I was provoked into this day by academically formal and old-fashioned introspection’.

In 1975, Hans Rosling takes his medical degree at Uppsala University. The profession took him and his wife Agneta to Mozambique, where, side-by-side, they discover Konzo the paralytic disease that affects the rural poor and later formed the basis of Hans’ doctoral studies.

Back in Sweden, Hans Rosling takes the initiative to the Sweden section of Doctors Without Borders and starts the course Man and Nature at Uppsala University. In 1997 he moved his desktop to the Karolinska Institutet and the post of professor. Eight years later, together with his son Ola and the daughter in law Anna, he founded Gapminder, a foundation that develops the Trendalyzer software with the aim to illustrate statistical development over time.

‘We can no longer divide the world into only two types of countries: developed and developing countries. Today the vast majority of nations find themselves in the socio-economic mainstream, with the richest and poorest people on each side. However, the improvements occur faster than us Swedes update ourselves. Gapminder and Novus recently tested the public's knowledge of the percentage of vaccinated children, illiterate adults and number of children per woman. The answers are more like Tintin’s reality than our own and the results are often worse than chance. The problem is not a lack of knowledge, but an actively enforced ignorance.´

Gapminder will soon begin to produce and distribute information about our planet. The impact is huge. In 2012, TIME magazine voted Hans Rosling as one of the world's 100 most influential people. The day before our meeting, IT billionaire Bill Gates praised Hans to the skies. There seems to be only one person who was not impressed: Hans Rosling.

‘The aim was never fame. The aim has been to increase the general public’s fundamental knowledge about the state of the world and which up until now is something Gapminder has failed to do. And as long as everyone, from professors to high school students, live in ignorance about these major changes, I’ll continue with my work.’ Gapminder has recently started to develop apps that will incorporate specific themes about countries, regions and the world. ‘Some days ago we published a video showing how a reduction in infant mortality controls population growth, look here and you’ll see!’

Suddenly Hans draws a few rapid lines in my notepad, to show that the number of children on earth has already stopped increasing and that rapid population growth has ceased during this century. Guided by Hans Rosling's equally characteristic as absorbing explanations, I’m soon convinced, this may fix the world! However, it strikes me suddenly, what do I actually do with my newfound knowledge?

`I don’t care’, grins Hans. `The person who created the underground map in London did this so travellers would understand the system, he didn’t care where they were travelling. I’ll give you a map of the world. How you use it is your own business, but in my world, knowledge is the foundation of any well-functioning society, business and democracy.’



FACTS/Hans Rosling

Age: 65 years

Title: “Edutainer” and chair of Gapminder

Lives: Terraced house in Flogsta (Uppsala)

Favourite place in Uppsala: See Lives

Favourite student club: Never visited a student club

A person I'd like to meet: All high school students and tell them about the state of the world

A day off: I play with my grandchildren