From our Depsters September 13, 2018
What does your toothbrush reveal?
As the co-founder of the interactive software Dollar Street, Swedish designer Anna Rosling Rönnlund seeks to facilitate people’s understanding of the world through visual perception. Speaking at the third edition of Dept’s annual festival, Anna gave valuable insights into her project. And how she made public data both easier to understand and use whilst comparing income differences around the world at the click of a button. She also provides us with tips and tricks when it comes to factfullness and misconceptions.
Dollar Street the project
Throughout the talk, Anna walked us through Dollar Street explaining that the software visualises statistical information about people around the world using information about cultures and incomes. This project, described by developing agency Gapminder as her “brainchild” – is not only one of a kind but also special in its execution. Anna Rosling has undertaken this extraordinary project with her partner, Ola Rosling. “Dollar Street enables us to understand both the differences and similarities between individuals all around the world while breaking down stereotypes.” A remark which she mentioned several times throughout her talk. According to Anna it is not much about culture, it’s more about what and how you do things.
The woman and her mission
Anna has worked on facilitating the understanding of global public data for the last fifteen years. Along the way, she faced several obstacles while working towards her mission. In order to make trends and patterns easier to understand, particular colours and charts were applied to selected data. “However,” she reveals that, “it did not tell the whole story about everyday life on different income levels.” Instead of letting her frustration get the better of her, she used it to create new ways to visualise this specific matter. Or in her exact words: “making statistics hot. And, making it understandable by using videos, improving search features and such.”
The deserved question now would be: how do you tell the whole story about everyday life around the whole world? She knew the answer: “I sent a team of photographers to 264 homes in 50 countries (still counting) to report everyday life around the globe.” The project required considerable action and that was exactly the strategy that was undertaken considering the way they gathered information locally. “Photographers spent a day taking photos of up to 135 objects in each and every home. They made video snippets of people doing daily activities and photos of objects such as toilets, doors, and bedrooms.”
The software enables you to compare different incomes by seeing how it affects things such as toilets and bedrooms. Moreover, there is a correlation to be found. Anna explains how this is portrayed on the dashboard software: “On a wealth scale ranging from poorest to richest, the higher the income level, the smaller the differences are between the families and their property.” We might differ less from each other than we initially thought after all.
During the Dept Talk, Anna displayed a collection of visuals demonstrating people brushing their teeth, across different income levels. The collection started with people using both motorised and normal toothbrushes and ended with people brushing their teeth with their fingers in other parts of the world. The crowd’s reaction displayed the impact visuals can have; people were surprised by the differences. One could wonder whether the data, expressed in words, would make such a statement.
Is the world really divided in two?
On her way to the top, she fights misconceptions such as ‘the world is divided into two’ and ‘the world is getting worse’. One reason for those misconceptions could be ascribed to media consumption. Anna: “‘We see illness; we see different cultures being projected as exotic; we see extraordinary events.”’
During the Talk, she fights those misconceptions by leading us through the rules of thumb of factfulness explaining: “One of the rules is calculating risk when the feeling of fear arises. When it comes to sizes and comparisons, one should always remember to compare and divide.” And, when it comes to the topic of urgency, the rule that did not go unnoticed, Anna would say: “You should take small steps.”
You can find the instincts that distort our perspective and all the rules and components in the book which she co-wrote with her father-in-law, entitled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Raising awareness is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. She noticed that the answers to simple questions such as the percentage of the world’s population that live in poverty and why the world’s population is increasing, is not one we have on the top of our minds.
The results she collected expose that people do not know anything about the world around them. She described the results as simply sad. It is not because we do not care about the world around us. In fact, when people are curious or uncertain about a particular topic, they google it. Staring directly into the audience, Anna asks: “have you ever wondered whether or not we research the topic of life expectancy? Well, we do. However, only combined with the keyword, cats.”
On a global scale, the average quality of life is improving. However, people’s answers demonstrate that they think that it is worse than it actually is.
What toothbrushes have to do with understanding the world
Before ending her Talk, Anna asks us the following: “where do you guys think you stand on the poverty scale?” The audience’s answers differ a lot from one to another. However, everyone is wrong. “Everyone in this tent can be placed on the same spot,” she said, “on a global scale, we are all rich given that we are physically in this room.”
As it turns out, a project such as Dollar Street is not redundant. Dollar Street is not only a software, it also tells an important and, therefore, eye-opening story with the use of visuals. One could say the means do not undercompensate the product. The photos are what you recall when brushing your teeth the evening after the Dept Talk.
In the end, those pictures were taken and will serve as data for the Dollar Street software, which aims to raise awareness. However, not without leaving us wondering whether or not we actually understand the diverse circumstances in the whole wide world.
It might be a good promise to always strive for human interaction and room for dialogue or in this case with the use of visuals. The fact that, we did not reach that point does not mean that it is impossible. It simply means that we did not look in the right direction. Anna is living proof of that.