Monday, December 19, 2016

Nature's Amy MaxMen on the achievements of Gapminder's Hans Rosling

In January 2011 and June 2013, I linked to two videos by Swedish statistician and popularizer Hans Rosling demonstrating different demographic trends. Today, via 3 Quarks Daily, I came across Amy Maxmen's excellent long-format article on Rosling and his accomplishments, "Three minutes with Hans Rosling will change your mind about the world". It does a great job of explaining just what Rosling, and his Gapminder Foundatin, are trying to achieve, and why.

Back in Sweden, Rosling continued to teach global health, moving to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 1996. But he came to realize that neither his students nor his colleagues grasped extreme poverty. They pictured the poor as almost everyone in the ‘developing world’: an arbitrarily defined territory that includes nations as economically diverse as Sierra Leone, Argentina, China and Afghanistan. They thought it was all large family sizes and low life expectancies: only the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries served as their reference point. “They just make it about us and them; the West and the rest,” Rosling says. How could anyone hope to solve problems if they didn’t understand the different challenges faced, for example, by Congolese subsistence farmers far from paved roads and Brazilian street vendors in urban favelas? “Scientists want to do good, but the problem is that they don’t understand the world,” Rosling says.

Ola, his son, offered to help explain the world with graphics, and built his father software that animated data compiled by the UN and the World Bank. Visual aids in hand, the elder Rosling began to script the provocative presentations that have made him famous. In one, a graph shows the distribution of incomes in 1975 — a camel’s back, with rich countries and poor countries forming two humps. Then he presses ‘go’ and China, India, Latin America and the Middle East drift forward over time. Africa moves ahead too, but not nearly as much as the others. Rosling says, “The camel dies and we have a dromedary world with one hump only!” He adds, “The per cent in poverty has decreased — still it’s appalling that so many remain in extreme poverty.”

Rosling’s online presentations grew popular, and the investment bank Goldman Sachs invited him to speak at client events. His message seemed to support advice from the firm’s chief economist, Jim O’Neill. In 2001, O’Neill had coined the acronym BRIC for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, often considered part of the developing world. He warned that financial experts ignored these rising powers at their peril. “I used to tease my colleagues who thought in a traditional framework,” O’Neill says. “Why are we talking about China as the developing world? Based on the rate of economic growth, China creates another Greece every three months; another UK every two years.”

Rosling welcomed the new audience. “They request my lectures because they want to know the world as it is,” he says. The private sector needs to understand the economic and political conditions of current and potential markets. “To me it was horrific to realize that business leaders had a more fact-based world view than activists and university professors.”

[. . .]

Rosling’s charm appeals to those frustrated by the persistence of myths about the world. Looming large is an idea popularized by Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University in California, who warned in 1968 that the world was heading towards mass starvation owing to overpopulation. Melinda Gates says that after a drink or two, people often tell her that they think the Gates Foundation may be contributing to overpopulation and environmental collapse by saving children’s lives with interventions such as vaccines. She is thrilled when Rosling smoothly uses data to show how the reverse is true: as rates of child survival have increased over time, family size has shrunk. She has joined him as a speaker at several high-level events. “I’ve watched people have this ‘aha’ moment when Hans speaks,” she says. “He breaks these myths in such a gentle way. I adore him.”

Here's another clip, a video taken last year where Rosling explains the reality of a strong convergence of Mexico with the United States.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Census still vulnerable to political meddling, says former chief"

Canadian newsmagazine MacLean's hosts Jordan Press' Canadian Press article "Census still vulnerable to political meddling, says former chief". Wayne Smith warns that the Canadian census is still vulnerable to political interference, even with new legislation.

The federal government’s bid to protect Statistics Canada from political interference has a significant oversight that exposes the census to the possibility of government meddling, says Canada’s former chief statistician.

Wayne Smith, who resigned abruptly from the agency in September, said newly introduced legislation doesn’t change the parts of the Statistics Act that give cabinet control over the content of the questionnaire.

That leaves the census – used by governments to plan infrastructure and services – vulnerable to the sorts of changes the Conservatives imposed in 2011 by turning the long-form census into a voluntary survey, Smith said.

“That’s a major flaw in this bill,” he said. “The government brought this bill in because of the census, but it’s failing to deal with the census.”

Smith described the bill as a first step towards broadening the agency’s authority over how information on all types of subjects is collected, analyzed and disseminated, shifting that authority away from the minister.

Freedom, including access to public data both accurate and meaningful, is a constant struggle now, as it always has been.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Globe and Mail on the Syrian refugee population in Canada

In The Globe and Mail, journalist Joe Friesen's data-driven analysis "Syrian exodus to Canada: One year later, a look at who the refugees are and where they went" takes a look at how the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees resettled Canada are doing.

The initial surge of arrivals was fuelled primarily by privately sponsored refugees whose applications were already in the pipeline under the previous Conservative government. Many of them have family ties in Canada and their first year is subsidized by their sponsor group. In Quebec, where roughly half of Syrian-Canadians were believed to reside, about 80 per cent of Syrian arrivals were privately sponsored. By contras, in Saskatchewan, only a very few have been privately sponsored and the overwhelming majority are government sponsored. In the first years after arrival, privately sponsored refugees, who often have advantageous family networks and higher levels of education, tend to fare better economically, studies have shown. Government-sponsored refugees are typically selected based on humanitarian need, which will often present social and educational challenges and they tend to take longer to establish themselves.

Ontario and Quebec, Canada’s two largest provinces, took in the largest number of refugees. Alberta, where there are established networks of private sponsorship groups, including large organizations run by Catholic groups in Calgary and Edmonton, surged ahead of its larger neighbour British Columbia to take third spot. New Brunswick took in refugees at a rate far higher than its share of population, exceeding the numbers seen in more populous provinces such as Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, Canada’s three largest cities, are always magnets for immigrants, so it’s no surprise that they would see the largest influx of Syrian refugees. All three have Syrian-Canadian residents who will have helped drive sponsorships. They also have effective refugee-sponsorship organizations, such as churches and secular groups, that provide an infrastructure for the new arrivals. On a per-capita basis, it was the mid-size Canadian cities that saw the greatest proportional impact of the Syrian refugee movement. Trois-Rivières, a Quebec city of 135,000 people, had the highest per-capita rate of arrivals. Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said there is a large and well-organized Armenian-Syrian community in Quebec that has contributed to sponsoring and settling a sizable number of the new arrivals. London, Ont., a city with a sizable Muslim community, welcomed the fourth-highest total, proportionally.

Friesen goes into more detail. There are some problems which may hinder the refugees' integration into Canada, with shortfalls in education and sometimes a lack of fluency in either official language.