Why are we working on Our World In Data?

Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this entry, please also cite the underlying data sources. This entry can be cited as:

Max Roser (2018) - "Why are we working on Our World In Data?". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/about/why-are-we-working-on-our-world-in-data' [Online Resource]
Our World in Data presents the empirical evidence on global development in entries dedicated to specific topics.

This post is part of our series in which we reflect on our work, linked to from our about page.

I. Why are we working on Our World In Data?

I.1 Because the daily news are not enough to know about the world

The media focuses on events, Our World in Data focuses on slow but long-lasting developments. News channels that focus on events are not able to show how our world is changing since many of the long trends that transformed our world do not get covered in the news and surely never make the headlines.

Here is an example: The number of people living in extreme poverty fell from close to 2 billion in 1990 to 0.7 billion in 2015 (see here). On no day in this 25 year period was the headline of any newspaper in the world "The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday”. This is despite the fact that – on average – this would have been an accurate headline every single day during these 25 years.1

Because the media – as well as schools and universities – largely neglect reporting slow but transformative news the large public is extremely poorly educated about these developments. Even the decline of global extreme poverty – by any standard one of the most important developments in our lifetime – is only known by a small fraction of the population of the UK (10%), South Africa (14%), Norway (17%), Sweden (23%), and the US (5%).2

A second example: Global child mortality fell from 18.2% in 1960 to 4.3% in 2015; while 4.3% is still too high, this is a substantial achievement. But similarly on no day in the last 5 decades was there ever the headline ‘Global Child Mortality Fell by 0.00719% Since Yesterday’.

The focus of journalists on single events is understandable, the work of journalists is to write interesting stories and the history of progress is largely about the absence of exciting stories – fewer deaths, less poverty, less violence. The unbalanced account of the media and of some intellectuals however, is translated to a popular conception of the development of the world that is too negative.

We think this ignorance about global development matters. Constant doom saying and the failure to report the accomplishment of our efforts is nurturing cynicism. It is especially sad when those who care about the development of our world turn away as they see no information on global development that would give them hope.

The motivation for publishing OurWorldInData could not be explained better than in the words of Albert Schweitzer who realized several decades ago:

Now we can make a publication on real progress possible, with a reach and in a technological form that was unimaginable by Schweitzer.

We have to communicate how global living conditions are gradually changing and OurWorldInData aims to be a complementary source to the news that informs us all about the world.

Because I was disappointed and angry with a media and education that were not informing me and others about these and other fundamental trends that changes our world I started working on Our World in Data in 2011.

I.2 Because statistics – not only single stories – are needed to get an idea of our world

Our culture – both in certain parts of academia and in the public discussion – is too focussed on single events and we overestimate our ability to arrive at a reliable picture of our world. By only focussing on single developments we cannot understand how the world is changing.

There is no way of knowing how living conditions change in your country or in the world as a whole without good statistical work.

The issue we are tackling with Our World In Data is that the barriers for the general public to get informed by the important quantitative social research carried out in academic institutions are frustratingly high. OurWorldInData changes this and makes research on social, economic and environmental trends accessible.

As argued before, we are mistaken if we believe that we can be informed how the world is changing by only following the news. News are important to know what happens in an instant, but they fail to convey what happens slowly but steadily over long stretches of time.

This is very unfortunate because it tilts the information about our world to negative aspects – things that go wrong.

The empirical view of our world over the long term shows how the Enlightenment continues to make our world a better place. It chronicles how human societies became less violent and increasingly more democratic. The empirical evidence shows how new ideas continue to improve living standards, allowing us to live a healthierricher and happier life. It is the story of declining poverty and better food provision in a world we care about.

Most of the long-run trends are positive and paint an optimistic view of our world that is unknown to many who only follow the daily news to inform themselves about the world. The research presented on OWID backs up the statement by Karl Popper.

Popper-English-Quote

The empirical view on our world shows how misplaced doom and defeatism often were and my aim is to encourage those who work to make our world a better place still. At the same time my hope is also to help to change the mind of those of you who do not think that we are creating a better world. By looking at the empirical data I want to explain why I am optimistic about how we are changing our world and why I think it is worthwhile to engage in the global long-term project of Enlightenment. Although most trends are clearly going in the right direction I also show where this is not the case. In a world of hysteria we cannot focus on what is important, but a fact-based view on our world should help us to focus on the topics that are most important.

I.4 To pursue more of what works and to get engaged in a world that achieves progress

The annual question of the science portal Edge is “What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news?” and Professor Steven Pinker answered that in his opinion it is the possibility to “quantify human progress”.

Pinker explains why he considers this to be the most important and interesting news: “Foremost, quantified progress is a feedback signal for adjusting what we have been doing. The gifts of progress we have enjoyed are the result of institutions and norms that have become entrenched in the last two centuries: reason, science, technology, education, expertise, democracy, regulated markets, and a moral commitment to human rights and human flourishing.”

The motivation of publishing Our World In Data is indeed to be more constructive about development. We have to know what works so that we pursue more of it. To me this is also about trust in our institutions and about believing in each other. It is too easy to be cynical about the world and cynicism is leading to misanthropy.

The absence of information on global development has an additional sorry consequence: The lack of feedback on our efforts as a society can make us lose trust in ourselves and at the extreme make us lose will to change the world for the better.

Here is how a reader of OurWorldInData put it in an email: “nobody is able to accomplish anything when ones mind is preoccupied with negative news, insecurity, and fear. Quite the contrary, to achieve something great we need to know that our efforts are worthwhile, yet understand that many aspects need our work so that we can further improve our world.”

It is disempowering if we wrongly think that we are going down the wrong way and contrariwise it can be empowering to know that we are doing something right.

It reinforces development also because it makes us ask questions. To see how agricultural yields have increased or how the child mortality rate is falling in all countries in the world makes you ask questions.

We need to present the research that lets us understand why living conditions change. What is driving progress to improve global health and education and how can we further reduce extreme poverty, violence, hunger? We need to bridge the gap between researchers and the public and clearly show that we have it in our hands to work towards a world where living conditions are improving for all of us. We can be more effective when the public – including policy makers, journalists, and academics – knows where and how we need to act to improve living conditions for every person around the world.

Our World in Data is about solutions as much as problems.

I.5 To communicate what we know about global development, to choose better policies

The aim for the web publication Our World in Data is to bring together the best available quantitative research on the many different aspects of global development and to present the most reliable empirical data openly to the public.

We believe that communicating knowledge about global development matters for the quality of our democratic political system and ultimately for better decisions by policy makers and citizens. Democracy depends on informed citizens and the knowledge on global development and global challenges will help us to seek better policies.

Democracy crucially depends on informed consent and people view their world very different if they falsely believe that global living conditions are getting worse.  Fortunately empirical evidence is increasingly becoming the basis for political discussions and decisions and this project will provide a database for discussants to refer to. It is helpful for this form of political debate because while statistics are becoming the principal language of public argument, a comprehensive platform on global development accessible to the interested citizen does not exist.

OurWorldInData is motivated by the sense that statistics are the dominant language of public argument. The interactive visualizations – licensed under a permissive BY-SA-Creative Commons license – are directly usable for journalists (who can either copy the visualizations or directly embed them in their web publications). The experience with Our World In Data shows that many of us do pay attention to evidence and that there is a strong demand for the research on global development presented in this publication. The reason why research and data on global development does not play a larger part in the public debate and perception is the gap between academia and the wider public. For researchers, policy makers, and the public an open approach to empirical evidence is the best way to maximize the benefits of research.

There would be no greater misunderstanding than to interpret the content of Our World in Data as suggesting that we should pat our selves on the back and say we are happy with where we are. This is a publication about change and really about the necessity for constant change in order to move ahead. We want people to complain. The purpose of this research project is not to stop people from complaining; on the contrary our argument is that a reasoned critique -- that involves considering what we have learned through the progress we achieved in modern history -- is beneficial in bringing about change and helping to create a better world.

An honest account of the state of humanity is important to be able to further progress and human solidarity by criticizing the wrongs of today. In a sea of hysteria it is hard to hear the important warnings and to point out the issues that truly matter.

Visualising data is a form of knowledge compression and the experience has shown that investing in Our World In Data is therefore an effective way to communicate research through the media and influence policy and public understanding of our world.

I.6 To know where to focus our efforts and to get more of us in development

Our World In Data always shows both, the change so far and the challenge ahead. In the Visual History of World Poverty we see the reduction of extreme poverty from 44% in 1981 to less than 10% in 2015. This reduction is an extraordinary achievement. But at the same this data visualisation and the accompanying entry on OurWorldInData  also show that almost 10% of the world population live in extreme poverty – clearly an outrageously high number of individuals that live in abysmal living conditions in our present world.

The medical doctor and director of the Global Burden of Disease study Chris Murray believes that “You could solve humanity’s most pressing problems once you recognize them […] that’s why I keep obsessing about marshaling the facts and putting them in a way for people who need to think about them”.3 OurWorldInData does both, it shows the successes so far and the pressing challenges ahead so that we know where we should focus our efforts.

We are convinced that portraying the difficult yet successful efforts of humanity will be a helpful way to look at history and our present condition. In this spirit our work is directed against cynicism and in favor of engagement in a developing world.

There is no reason that human history turned this way. It would be false to pretend that what has happened had to happen, after all the revolutions to living standards did not happen for millennia. And although I’m optimistic there is no reason that it continues this way. We have to keep working for a better world and the book will present what we can learn from the successful aspects of development so far.

We need to know in which aspects the world has seen progress and why and we also need to show where people live in destitute conditions and present clearly what the big challenges of today are. This helps us to prioritize where and on which aspects policy makers and all of us focus our efforts.

I.7 To communicate a broad understanding of development – not just economic growth

The perception and discussion of development is focused on a single, narrow aspect of development: Economic growth.

The growth of incomes is important, yet it is a means to an end and certainly it is no guarantee that we achieve the ends of development that we care about (health, education, human freedom, sustainable relationship with nature and more). Our World In Data promotes a broad understanding of what development means. The aim is to broaden the debate and make measures of health and other aspects of development as ubiquitous and easy to access as data on economic output is today.

The Millennium Development Goals with a focus on health and even more the Sustainable Development Goals with the understanding that development is even broader were steps in the right direction. Our World In Data gives this perspective a permanent home.

As recommended by Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi (2009), GDP per capita remains an important part of the empirical perspective on development, but the measure will not be used to capture aspects that it is not able to capture. For the wider range of aspects of development OurWorldInData will also follow the recommendation of the Stiglitz, Sen, and Fitoussi report and present a range of indicators (dashboard approach). The website is therefore structured into 16 categories and aims to communicate the empirical research on all of these aspects:

  1. Population Growth & Vital Statistics
  2. Health
  3. Food & Agriculture
  4. Resources & Energy
  5. Environmental Change
  6. Technology & Infrastructure
  7. Growth & Distribution of Prosperity
  8. Economic Development, Work & Standard of Living
  9. The Public Sector & Economic System
  10. Global Interconnections
  11. War & Peace
  12. Political Regime
  13. Violence & Rights
  14. Education & Knowledge
  15. Media & Communication
  16. Culture, Values & Society

I.8 Because our cognition makes it likely that we become pessimistic

The important consequence of the media’s focus on events rather than slow trends is that global development does not get reported. Harm is done in an instant and disasters are happening at once: an earthquake, a plane crash, or the attack of a group of terrorists. In contrast, many of the best news for life on earth are shaped by trends that slowly and over the course of decades or centuries change our world.

The fact that the media fails to communicate a large part of global development would be less an issue if our own perception would provide us with an accurate representation of how the world is changing.

Unfortunately this is not the case. And even worse, the lack of information on global development is compounded by, rather than corrected by, our perception: We are bad intuitive statisticians. This – in a nutshell – is the research result of psychologists and behavioral economists, summarized in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Two of the important biases that make us such bad intuitive statisticians are:

–    The availability heuristic biases our perception towards the events that we see repeatedly and for which we can recall examples easily. This is aggravating the predicament of a media that mostly focuses on gloomy event news.

–    The negativity bias describes the fact that our perception responds more strongly to unpleasant news. From an evolutionary perspective it is clear that it is most important for an organism to survive that it notices danger and threats and therefore to focus on these aspects of our world. But what makes us well equipped for our immediate daily surrounding makes us ill-equipped to understand the world around us at large. The consequence of which is that we pay excessive attention to threats and losses and fail to see opportunities and gains.

To balance these biases we have to develop greater sensitivity in measuring opportunities and gains and we have to measure slow changes over time accurately. To develop this clear-eyed view of our world is what scientists around the world are doing. To communicate these gains, opportunities, and slow trends and to make this research accessible for all of us is what OurWorldInData.org aims to do.

As the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker put it when examining why we fail to see human progress: ‘the diagnosis comes from cognitive science and the cure from data science’.

The available evidence for how well informed we are about the world suggests that in important aspects this work is vital. Studies show that the public’s knowledge of how the world is changing in important aspects is sadly rather low. The study ‘Perils of Perception’ published annually by Ipsos MORI, for example, showed how wrong the British public were about some of the most important trends:  One of the findings of the study was that 58% of the British public do not believe that crime is falling, when in fact the ‘Crime Survey for England and Wales’ shows that incidents of crime in 2012 were 53% lower than in 1995.

I.9 To counter fatalism and make us appreciate the progress the world has achieved

Nostalgia for a better past is widespread and many see the world in decline. The chart shows, few of us are optimistic.

Share of the population who think the world is getting better4

Optimistic-about-the-future

Our World In Data seeks to put this widespread pessimism in context. In the best case people will question their pessimism about the world and it is an initiative that fosters a kind of public optimism. For this effort to succeed we need to present the picture of true progress that we see in the data.  Steven Pinker again“Quantified human progress emboldens us to seek more of it. A common belief among activists is that any optimistic datum must be suppressed lest it lull people into complacency. Instead, one must keep up the heat by wailing about ongoing crises and scolding people for being insufficiently terrified. Unfortunately, this can lead to a complementary danger: fatalism.”

Because our hopes and efforts for building a better future are inextricably linked to our perception of the past it is important to understand and communicate the global development up to now. Studying our world in data and understanding how we overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time should also give us confidence and guidance to tackle the problems we are currently facing. It is easy to be cynical about the world and to maintain that nothing is ever getting better. But fortunately the empirical evidence often contradicts this view. We believe it is partly due to a lack of relevant and understandable information that a negative view on how the world is changing is so very common.

This is the perspective on the world that OurWorldInData presents and the ambition is that seeing the world through this online publication makes more of us appreciate the progress the world has achieved and seek more of it in the future.