Poverty, disease, hunger, climate change, war, existential risks, and inequality: The world faces many great and terrifying problems. It is these large problems that our work at Our World in Data focuses on.
Thanks to the work of thousands of researchers around the world who dedicate their lives to it, we often have a good understanding of how it is possible to make progress against the large problems we are facing. The world has the resources to do much better and reduce the suffering in the world.
We believe that a key reason why we fail to achieve the progress we are capable of is that we do not make enough use of this existing research and data: the important knowledge is often stored in inaccessible databases, locked away behind paywalls and buried under jargon in academic papers.
The goal of our work is to make the knowledge on the big problems accessible and understandable. As we say on our homepage, Our World in Data’s mission is to publish the “research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems”.
Why have we made this our mission?
This is the question our founder Max Roser answers in this text:
If you want to contribute to a better future you need to know the problems the world faces. To understand these problems the daily news is not enough. The news media focuses on events and therefore largely fails to report the two aspects that Our World in Data focuses on: the large problems that continue to confront us for centuries or much longer and the long-lasting, forceful changes that gradually reshape our world.
The criterion by which the news select what they focus our attention on is whether it is new. The criterion by which we at Our World in Data decide what to focus our attention on is whether it is important.
The front page of Our World in Data lists the same big global problems every day, because they matter every day. One of the biggest mistakes that the news media makes is to suggest that different things matter on different days.
To understand issues that are affecting billions, we need data. We need to carefully measure what we care about and make the results accessible in an understandable and public platform. This allows everyone to see the state of the world today and track where we are making progress, and where we are falling behind. The publication we are building has this goal. Through interactive data visualizations we can see how the world has changed; by summarizing the scientific literature we can understand why.
To work towards a better future, we also need to understand how and why the world is changing.
The historical data and research shows that it is possible to change the world. Historical research shows that until a few generations ago around half of all newborns died as children. Since then the health of children has rapidly improved around the world and life expectancy has doubled in all regions. Progress is possible.
In other important ways global living conditions have improved as well. While we believe this is one of the most important facts to know about the world we live in, it is known by surprisingly few.
Instead, many believe that global living conditions are stagnating or getting worse and much of the news media’s reporting is doing little to challenge this perception. It is wrong to believe that one can understand the world by following the news alone and the media’s focus on single events and things that go wrong can mean that well-intentioned people who want to contribute to positive change become overwhelmed, hopeless, cynical and in the worst cases give up on their ideals. Much of our effort throughout these years has been dedicated to countering this threat.
Researching how it was possible to make progress against large problems in the past allows us to learn. Progress is possible, but it is not a given. If we want to know how to reduce suffering and tackle the world’s problems we should learn from what was successful in the past.
We take a broad perspective, covering an extensive range of aspects that matter for our lives. Measuring economic growth is not enough. The research publications on Our World in Data are dedicated to a large range of global problems in health, education, violence, political power, human rights, war, poverty, inequality, energy, hunger, and humanity’s impact on the environment. On the homepage we list all the global problems and important long-term changes that we have researched. The complete list of aspects that we eventually want to cover is longer still and can be found here.
As becomes obvious from our publication we always aim to provide a global perspective, but our focus are the living conditions of the worst-off.
Covering all of these aspects in one resource makes it possible to understand how long-run global trends are interlinked.
On the closely integrated website SDG-Tracker.org we present the data and research on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2015, all countries in the world signed up to reach the SDGs by 2030 and we built this site to track progress towards them. Our SDG-Tracker is a widely accessed publication that presents all the latest available data on the 232 SDG-Indicators with which the 17 Goals are assessed.
This is the core of our mission and extends beyond the SDGs. We all, the citizens of this world, are investing vast resources towards the ambitious goal of making the world a better place: we dedicate our lives to medical care and education, we are developing new technologies, we are spending large sums of money on infrastructure and the education of the next generation. What we do not do enough is to investigate whether these efforts are actually getting us closer to achieving our goals.
If the world wants to be serious about achieving progress we need to be much more serious about measuring what matters.
The research we publish here is not only the work of our small team. Instead we rely on the work of a global community of scholars and wherever possible we see our role as presenting the best available research and data in an understandable and accessible way. Only when we find that important questions have not yet been answered do we do the necessary research ourselves and fill in the gaps.
Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.” This is how science should work. Those who want to understand the world should be able to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. A key part of our mission is therefore to build an infrastructure that makes research and data openly available and useful for all.
Making progress against the large problems that our world is facing will require dedicated work for a long time. We are therefore building a publication that aims to remain helpful for several decades: we regularly update our existing work as new research improves our understanding of the world; and we are building and expanding a central database, which allows us to continuously update the entire publication with the best available data.
The web allows us to publish in a way that was unimaginable just a few years ago: distribution is free and research and data can be explored through interactive documents. Yet much of today’s research is published in a format that is essentially the same as that made available by Gutenberg’s printing press, 500 years ago.
To make research and data as accessible as possible we are a team in which researchers are collaborating with web developers. Together we are building the infrastructure that allows everyone in the world to understand how we make progress against our most pressing problems.
If you want to join us as a developer or researcher, see our Jobs page.
We have big plans for the coming decades, but we are already having an impact. More than a million readers come to our site every month. Our work is very regularly covered by the media, our publication is informing many writers in their often widely read work, our writing is widely shared through social media, and we are regularly cited in top journals including Science and Nature.
For many relevant search queries – ‘CO2 emissions’, ‘world poverty’, ‘child mortality’, ‘population growth’ – we are one of the top search results in many parts of the world. And our work is commonly used as teaching material in schools and universities.
We design our work with the aim of generating an impact beyond what our team can achieve directly. By producing charts and data that can be freely downloaded and embedded in others’ work, we support and empower colleagues in policy, media and civil society also working on the problems we focus on.
This is why all the work we ever do is made available in its entirety as a public good:
Reader donations are essential to our work, providing us with the stability and independence we need, so we can focus on showing the data and evidence we think everyone needs to know.
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