Meeting with world leaders this week at the Davos conference in Switzerland, Bill Gates gave a public shout-out to the economist Max Roser. Specifically, Gates said that Roser has created his “favorite infographic,” one that depicts “just how much life has improved over the last two centuries.”
The graphic intersects two of my favorite subjects: the visual display of information and the enormous progress we’re making each and every day.
I like to consider myself part of a group of writers and thinkers who call themselves The New Optimists. They include Gates, Steven Pinker, Warren Buffett, and Hans Rosling who passed away last year but whose legacy is carried on by his family. Optimists don’t focus on what’s wrong. They focus on what we’ve done right so far and use the information to improve the future.
Rosling once said that if people knew about this information, they’d be having a party every day. We don’t celebrate every day, of course, because psychologically we’re wired for threats—bad news spreads much faster than good news.
The graphic is a wonderful illustration of the concept. Instead of using percentages, which are often abstract, it breaks down progress per 100 people. For example, let’s take extreme poverty. In 1820, 94 out of every 100 people in the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, the number of people living in extreme poverty is 10 out of every 100. The same type of breakdown shows massive improvement in basic education, literacy, democracy, vaccination rates and child mortality.
If you look at the original research that made up the charts, you’ll find that it requires about 4,000 words to explain what you see. Or you can look at the visual and get the gist of it in under a minute.
When you deliver complex information in a presentation, website or social media, keep in mind that people are visual learners for the most part. Photos, graphics and animations are much more powerful than text alone.