Animated Statistical Analysis

I am absolutely fascinated and inspired by the growing trend of people and institutions, from all sorts of backgrounds and interests, that are attempting to make the world a more educated and liberated place without attempting to empty our pockets into their purses in the process.

Wikipedia might be the first example that comes to most people's minds, but there are countless others, starting with radio broadcasting by NPR (National Public Radio), Alternative Radio, Democracy Now!, etc.

Recently I have learned of some new tools that enable anybody with enough curiosity, creativity and motivation to analyse statistical data on their own, without requiring any formal education in science, economic theory or statistical analysis. What these tools do is organize and animate statistical data in a way that is visually easy to understand, and where the very process of change is displayed.

One of the obvious benefits of such an approach is that applying this process reduces so-called "conventional wisdom," which is usually anything but wise. Conventional wisdom, I think, is really a fancy name for conventional and socially accepted prejudices of all sorts.

Of course, the philosopher in me wonders whether calling conventional wisdom a prejudice is itself a prejudice, but I think I'll save that possible dialetheic puzzle for another post.

In any case, whether analytical sophistication reinforces or challenges our beliefs, it is still better to have something reliable as the basis for our beliefs than mere assumptions and conjectures. If you don't believe me, I have a nice big green statue of a lady holding a torch in New York City that I could sell to you for a few thousand dollars, tax free, and a God that will punish you if you don't buy it...

Take the first example from Maps of War. If I were to ask you whether Democratic or Republican presidents have led the country to the greatest number of American war-related deaths over the history of our nation, what would be your answer?

Whatever your answer is, as long as you are not familiar with the actual numbers, it would ultimately be a reflection of your own personal attitudes, and not necessarily of the truth. So, if you were a Republican you would probably want to say that Democratic presidents are responsible for the greatest number of American casualties, and if you were a Democrat, you would probably say the opposite. Either answer would be pure speculation without something to back these conjectures. If you are curious about the actual answer, here is the animation.

The other tool is called Gapminder, which in conjunction with the nice folks at Google, has developed The Gapminder World Test. This is a tool that helps you animate international information that has already been stored from the World Bank, although soon individual users will be able to input their own data and create analysis of subjects they find worth exploring.

As it stands now, you can compare many different variables concerning demographic trends in order to understand the relationship between many of these variables (such as income, poverty, health, carbon dioxide emissions, education, fertility, income distribution, economic gaps, etc).

For educators, this represents a great way to get students interested in understanding statistical trends since it relies on Flash technology to make them fun and interesting. For students, this will soon represent a way to impress their professors by developing sophisticated projects that are aesthetically appealing as well as informative.

And the best part of it all is that this is a free service, available to anyone who wants to use it. It simply doesn't get any better than that, but, of course, Google will make it better than that soon...
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