[This history was written in autumn 2019]
Growing up I learned much of what is wrong about the world: war, poor health, environmental degradation, hunger, and poverty. Just as it was for everyone else, it was clear to me that the world faces many serious problems.
And like most of us I had no idea how these issues changed over time. My perception was that all of these problems were getting worse and my fear was that during my lifetime they will get worse still.
I was angry when I found out that in many important points I was wrong. Not in all, but in many ways the change over time was actually positive. I didn’t know it growing up, but it is actually possible to make progress against the big problems we face. The world had actually achieved positive changes.
How was it possible that I wasn’t aware of this progress? And especially, why did I believe the opposite of what was true, even after many years of education, and despite following the news and public discussions?
I was angry because my misconception of how the world changed had made me feel powerless for years. The straightforward evidence should have encouraged me to choose an important problem to work on and to do what I can to make progress against it. But since I lacked the knowledge that progress is possible I also didn’t know that it is possible to have a positive impact on the world. In retrospect I still feel bitter about it: the absence of a factual discussion of global problems and achievements destroyed my confidence in our world and robbed me of my hope for the future.
There was no single moment in which I realized how wrong I was. I slowly realized it as I studied social and economic history and read more research on global development. The lectures by Jesus Crespo-Cuaresma at the University of Innsbruck were important and the book that had the biggest influence on me at that time was Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’.
This slow realization, more than a decade ago, set me on the path to build Our World in Data. Since then it has been my aim to make the research and data accessible that would offer this perspective to everyone. To provide the perspective that I needed myself, when I was younger, has been a big motivation for spending the last 8 years on this.
Many of us don’t have a good understanding of global problems and change. This is not because the evidence isn’t available. Many of the relevant questions are very well-studied by thousands of researchers in the environmental and social sciences. But unfortunately it is very poorly communicated, with the research hidden behind paywalls and the data stored in dull, inaccessible databases. And science that is not communicated is of not much help, it is just a stack of papers in a drawer.
From the start, Our World in Data was intended as a platform that brings this research together and makes it accessible and understandable. Our mission has always been to present the research and data we need to make progress against the world’s largest problems. To achieve this mission the focus since 2011 has been to build a team of researchers that understands and communicates the research on a wide range of important global problems. The web makes it possible to provide this completely free for everyone as a public good. For this reason we have strong web developers in our team that build the tools – the site, visualization tools, and a growing database – that make this research accessible and understandable. This is the history of how I got started and where we are today (October 2019) as a team.
It was during 2011, as I was working in Brazil, when I started working on my original idea for how to publish the data and research on global change. The original idea was to write a book on the big global problems.
My plan was to address many of the big problems with a broad overview. To be able to write the book I started to collect all the data and research that would give me an understanding on where the world stands today and what we know about how to change it. In the first few years of working on this, my collection grew to many thousand datasets, visualizations, and publications. This collection later became the starting point for Our World in Data.
In early 2012, I moved to Oxford to work with Sir Tony Atkinson on income inequality. Atkinson had spent several decades researching inequality and poverty. His work has an immense impact on all scholars who work in the field today and this is also true for my work and Our World in Data. None of it would have been possible without him.
In the summer of 2012 I shared my very early plan and outline for the book. The plan was, at the time, a private side-project of mine, but from the start Tony was extremely supportive and we continued to discuss the book concept and studied the data together.
In these conversations we realized that it would be valuable to make the research available online. One discussion I remember well was about a typo Tony had found in his book on earnings inequality in OECD countries.1 It was a small typo in one of the tables, but he was very unhappy about it and explained how much better it would be if he had published the book online instead. We decided to do that for this project on the world’s problems. In an online publication typos can be fixed, research can stay up-to-date, and many more people can benefit from it. Later that year I shifted the effort from writing a book to building this web publication.
While I was spending my days working on inequality, I spent nights and weekends building first versions of what is now Our World in Data. At the beginning I had of course no financial or institutional support to work on it. To finance it, I worked as a bicycle tour guide in Poland, Portugal, France and other places around Europe. For many years it was only me working on this project.
Work was moving very slowly at first because I had to learn the basic web technologies to build the first versions of the website. Coming up with a name for the online publication also took me an embarrassingly long time. The list that I discussed with friends included maybe 200 or 300 names. I finally decided on ‘Our World in Data’ and my friends were happy that the endless discussions about it were finally over.
In early 2013 the Department of Economics at Oxford hired me as a post-doctoral researcher and I continued working with Tony Atkinson. Our World in Data was still my side-project, but the coverage of data and research grew. I managed to build a first version of the website and some early interactive visualizations (based on d3 and nvd3), and so I launched a first version of Our World in Data in the summer of that year. For many months the site was password-protected and I only shared it with a few friends. Looking back at old records, I see that I had just 202 visitors to the site in the first year.
It was Tony who suggested the research that is published on Our World in Data could possibly be based at the University. I had previously thought of it as an entirely private project, but Tony’s idea made sense: while most researchers at universities publish in specialized scientific journals, this new research team would publish their work in an online publication that is freely accessible for everyone. In November 2013, we applied for a research grant from the London-based Nuffield Foundation. Principal Investigator was Sir David Hendry, who was at the time my boss at Oxford’s Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). Half a year later we received a rejection from the Nuffield Foundation. I rewrote the application and reapplied. One year later, just before Christmas 2014, we received a letter from the Nuffield Foundation with the fantastic news that the work would now receive some funding.
In May 2014 I launched Our World in Data publicly. Over the following six months I had on average 20,000 visitors every month. This is of course a low number when compared to the reach of mass media, but it was much higher than I had expected. Academic publications usually do not reach many readers and I remember well how exciting it was to watch Google Analytics and see whenever a new reader found their way to the site.
During this time I was working at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) Oxford in Eagle House. It was there where I started working on inequality with Tony Atkinson in 2012 and INET stayed Our World in Data’s home during these years. It was a great place to work that provided a lot of freedom, a great community of researchers, and I remain very grateful for their support during these years.
At the end of the year we received the grant from the Nuffield Foundation in London. The Nuffield Foundation grant of £75,883 financed the project from December 2014 to November 2015; it was the first time I had a budget that would pay for at least some part-time team to work on Our World in Data.
By 2015, two important steps had been taken: A few people knew the site and found it useful and I had some research budget to pay colleagues for some time.
The next important step was to find a web developer and two researchers that shared the site’s mission and were willing to contribute to the publication.
In May 2015 I started working with Zdenek Hynek. Zdenek is a web developer, who was at the time based in London, and he built the first version of the Our World in Data-Grapher and redid the website in many ways.
From July 2015 onwards Lindsay Lee and Mohamed Nagdy worked as research assistants for the project. Lindsay concentrated on health and Mohamed on economic topics.
Four years of working on this by myself were over.
We grew the audience by spreading the word. I emailed academics, writers, and anyone who I thought might be interested in having a look. Journalists found the site helpful and wrote about it – here is an article from The Guardian from late 2015. I traveled to spread the word at conferences. Both at universities (a highlight that year was a talk in a busy, big lecture theatre at Harvard) to non-academic conferences (like Wired in London or Transition at the New York Times offices).
Financially this was a difficult time for the research project. There were times when I paid for the work of my colleagues from my own money.
By the end of 2015 the grant money was mostly spent and Lindsay and Mohamed had moved on to work at the World Health Organization and a bank, respectively. The project was at risk of coming to an end. At this moment a fan of Our World in Data took the initiative. James Beshara, who had founded the crowdfunding platform Tilt, started the campaign “Save OurWorldInData.org“. Within two weeks 139 readers of Our World in Data decided to donate a total of $26,086! Our World in Data was saved.
In early 2016 I started working with my very good friend Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. Esteban and I had known each other for several years and since the early days of Our World in Data we often discussed this work. Esteban is a fantastic economist and a very good manager, and it quickly became clear that we worked very well together. I think what is special about our collaboration is that we have a very similar view of the world, but very different skills that complement each other well.
A month later, in February 2016, Jaiden Mispy joined our small team as a web developer. Jaiden was not just interested in the web technology of the publication, but also very much in the content of Our World in Data. In fact, he had started to work on a similar web publication before he joined us. Jaiden worked with us until spring 2019 and he was an exceptionally smart colleague who has skills in all aspects of web development. He also has a strong personal drive to build technology that helps people around the world.
Financially we were able to keep going because of the donations we received from readers. This direct support kept the project alive during 2015 and 2016.
To give us some stability I had been working on a grant application for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In August 2016 we were given a one-year grant to expand our open-access online publication. It was the first time that we could plan for longer than just the next few months.In 2016 we also started a collaboration with the YouTube channel Kurz Gesagt and we published our first video in December. Both the partnership with the Gates Foundation and with Kurz Gesagt continue to this day.
On April 4 2017 Hannah Ritchie sent me an email and explained why she would want to contribute to our research. She had an unusual profile and was in an unusual position: Hannah has very broad interests – environmental research, energy, malnutrition, agriculture, health, and really the entire spectrum of topics that we work on – and she had published several very good academic papers. The very unusual position she was in was that she finished her PhD several years earlier than planned. Her application was particularly strong because she linked to several very good articles she had published on her own website.
The fit could not have been more perfect. Hannah joined soon after she sent this first email and was quickly leading big research projects within our team. She studies, in particular, humanity’s impact on the environment and asks how we can make progress against the severe problems that we face as a result. Since 2019 Hannah has been Head of Research for Our World in Data. Without her work, Our World in Data’s work today would be unimaginable.
Our publication grew: we published longer and more-in-depth articles on population growth, global poverty, greenhouse gas emissions, trade, fertility rates, and many other topics. Our research got cited in the best academic journals including Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the QJE, and The Lancet. And more readers came to our site to understand global problems.
After the end of the academic year Diana Beltekian, Sophie Ochman, and Ruby Mittal joined us as research assistants after they had finished their Master’s in Oxford. Ruby focussed on demographic changes. Sophie researched topics in global health, including the history of polio and smallpox. Diana has supported our research on many topics – the long-term history of trade, education, technological change, and much more – and since she knows about so many aspects of our publication, she is also the one who answers most of the many questions and ideas we receive from colleagues and readers.
And Aibek Aldabergenov joined us as the first database manager. The big central database, which by now, in 2019, includes more than 70,000 variables is at the heart of our work. For the first years, each author had to upload each variable by hand (at the beginning I had to hardcode each visualization and connect it to a specific file). Aibek changed all of this in the year he worked with us. We now mass import the most important datasets in one go and keep the publication up-to-date as new and better data becomes available. One big project that we will be working on in 2020 and ‘21 is to build the OWID-‘Data Explorer’ that will allow you as the reader to explore this entire big database (if you are interested in helping to build this tool or improve the database, join us – we are looking for two developers to join our team).
In 2015, all countries in the world signed up to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Yet by 2018 – three years into the SDG era – there was no publication that would allow the world’s citizens to see and understand whether a country, and the world as a whole, was on its way to reaching the goals. This is why we decided to do it ourselves and we developed the site: SDG-Tracker.org.
Joe Hasell joined us in 2017 when he was working remotely from Italy, since 2018 he works with us in Oxford. Since then he contributed research on two very different global problems. The first big focus of his work is the study of economic inequality. Joe worked with Tony Atkinson, Salvatore Morelli, and me on our open-access Chartbook of Economic Inequality; his PhD research focuses on inequality and housing.
The second focus of his work is the history of events that caused large-scale suffering – famines, genocides and war. His very first OWID project investigated the causes of famines and lead to a new dataset on the global history of famines over the last 150 years. Since 2018 he has been leading a large research project into the history of war and is currently building a global database of war over the last centuries. Joe also has a strong interest in ethics and philosophy more broadly, and has had a large influence on defining the mission of our work. We value him as a careful researcher, a philosopher, but also because he is the best musician of the team.
Anstey Brock joined us as a part-time researcher in 2018 for the research project on the history of war. She has a background in conflict studies and is working her way through stacks of historical accounts of wars and genocides to produce this much-needed perspective on the history of violence. We will publish this database in a way that will allow historians and war researchers to use the data for their own research, but also to contribute so the database can become more complete over time. This project is among the biggest we have taken on and it is possible thanks to this very good collaboration.
By 2018, the reach of Our World in Data had increased significantly. Many more readers were coming to the site and for many relevant search queries – ‘CO2 emissions’, ‘world poverty’, ‘child mortality’, ‘population growth’ – we became the top search results in many parts of the world. Many teachers and professors relied on our work in their classrooms, but we also had very unexpected uses: parents told us they had taken our research into account when they decided whether they should have children; and doctors told us that they use our work to help patients who suffer from depression – Dr Jill Gordon’s account of how she uses Our World in Data in her work can be found here.
Thanks to the help of many of you, the financial situation improved too. Over the last years hundreds of you have donated via OurWorldInData.org/donate to make our work possible. We have also applied and received more research grants and all of this meant that we were able to spend a bit less time fundraising and more time researching. We list our supporters here.
The web developer Daniel Gavrilov joined us in October. Out of a large number of applicants Daniel was obviously the ideal candidate – he had a background in data visualization in particular, and had shown that he is careful when thinking about the site’s design and user-interface from the reader’s perspective. We were very happy when he joined our team. He didn’t know what he was getting into: he hadn’t yet moved to Oxford when he learned that we would all be moving to Silicon Valley instead (more on this in a moment) and just a few months later he became the lead developer and had the challenging job of working on all aspects of the site, the database, and the visualization tool, whilst building a development team around him.
For our research we could have never asked for a better home than the University of Oxford and there the Institute for New Economic Thinking in the early years and the Oxford Martin School today. But the research is only one half of our work; the other half is dedicated to building the scientific publication and all the tools that are necessary for it. Sir Charles Godfray, the director of the Martin School, suggested that this work of the developers should have its own base: a nonprofit that is dedicated to the production and maintenance of the open-access online publication and tools. In 2018 we started building a non-profit that would serve this purpose. The Global Change Data Lab was founded and is today under the leadership of three outstanding trustees: Professor Wendy Carlin, Sir David Hendry, and Professor Stefano Caria.
Y Combinator is certainly the world’s most prestigious and arguably the best startup incubator. While they focus on for-profit startups they had also accepted a few non-profits over the past years. We decided to apply and were actually accepted! This meant that 2018 ended with some hectic weeks in which we prepared for our work in Silicon Valley.
Y Combinator started right after New Year’s Day. We all moved to Silicon Valley and started working. We wrote about our time there here. The one thing I’d now add in retrospect is that it became even clearer just how helpful YC has been the further away from it we are.
During the summer the web developer Matthieu Bergel joined our team. Matthieu is rebuilding the ‘content management system’ and overall has the important task of finding an architecture that allows you as the reader to navigate the site and find the relevant data and research. What was impressive with Matthieu was how very well he considers a wide range of options, weighs the pros and cons of each of them, and finally comes to a well-argued conclusion of what the right approach is.
The newest member of the team is Bernadeta Dadoinaite. Her research and experience have prepared her for exactly the kind of work we are doing: after completing a degree in microbiology she graduated with a PhD in immunology and translational medicine from Oxford; she has a Master’s degree in ‘science media production’ from Imperial College in London; and beyond that researches and visualizes data to understand global health. An understanding of health issues from the micro- to the macroscopic level makes her the perfect addition to our small Our World in Data team.
We are very much looking forward to working with Bernadeta and Matthieu much more!
It’s been a long journey over the last 8 years. But I am very happy that we embarked on it. Everyone in the team believes that research on big problems and studying how we can make progress against them is extremely important (we actually believe it is a duty). The key is to make the data and research we need for this accessible. But this is, unfortunately, in very short supply: it is not the kind of work that gets you a permanent position in universities; you have to raise funding for it constantly; and there are few incentives to do it. But as the work over the last years shows, it is possible.
The very best thing that happened on this journey is that many outstanding researchers and developers joined on the way. The team is what makes Our World in Data possible and I’m very grateful to be working with all of them.
The mission of this work has never changed: from the first days in 2011 Our World in Data focussed on the big global problems and asked how it is possible to make progress against them. The enemies of this effort were also always the same: apathy and cynicism. It is very easy to become cynical and give up in the face of the world’s big problems. For much too long I believed the cynics that tell us that it isn’t possible to change the world. That this belief is wrong is what unites our team. This is why we study how to make progress against the world’s biggest problems and we are looking forward to our joint work over the coming decades.