Friday, June 12, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

The latest TED Book Club selections included The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live. This wonderful big book distorts world map so that the size of different countries is proportional to some particular factor. For instance, the map to the left shows the distribution of passenger cars, dominated by the US, Europe and Japan.

On the other hand, a map measuring number of people living in poverty has India, China, Africa and SouthEast Asia ballooning in size.

You can read columns and columns of numbers, but a map such as this really brings home the message.

This book shows 366 such maps in glossy colour, with explanations. What a great coffee table book to browse when you have a few moments - with each fascinating page being thought provoking. You can also browse through almost 600 maps on the Worldmapper site. On most maps, Canada is almost invisible. However, we do gain some prominence on the map showing water resources. You can see us up there in dark blue at the top of the map!

Many diverse topics can be illuminated by this type of sophisticated software map. For instance, at a past TED, Alisa Smith, President and CEO of Public Radio International, used these maps to dramatically depict the state of US new coverage. Based on the news in all US media in February 2007 a worldmapper map makes it look as if the US and Iraq were the only two countries on the planet. She couldn't have made her point about the parochialism of US media more powerfully.

Today, I attended the Rotman Business School's annual Lifelong Learning Conference, which focused on Wicked Problems - those problems in social planning that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Anita McGahan has been studying and teaching about wicked problems at Rotman, with a considerable focus on global health care issues. McGahan made good use of worldmapper charts to show how different the health care issues are in the rich countries versus the poor. In rich countries, the major disease burden is from noncommunicable diseases, whereas the disease burden in poor countries is from communicable, maternal, prenatal, and nutritional diseases.

And of course, by 2050, we'll see the tremendous divide between the elderly in the rich countries and the young in the poor countries. The elderly rich will be dependent on youth in the poor countries as the productive, working people of the world. Again, dramatic charts showed this divide very clearly. McGahan hopes such impactful presentation will help the rich world to care more about the health care problems of the poor, even if only out of self-interest.

It's hard to make appropriate policy decisions without comprehensive and accurate data. Modern technology is delivering that data. But the sheer quantity of data can be bewildering. Our challenge now is to make sense of the data. Software tools such as worldmapper can unveil insights we might otherwise miss. And certainly the approach can help raise awareness about issues in a dramatic and understandable way.

Have fun browsing the book or the web site - or both!