Hans Rosling is a global health expert and data visionary who is a master at presenting complex data in a way that’s easy to understand. He is a storyteller with a Swedish soul. Here’s a good example, in a 9-minute TED video, “Hans Rosling and the magic washing machine.” This video is a great example of storytelling with data.

Rosling started out his presentation with a story, re-enacted on the stage: the day his mother got her first washing machine when he was four years old. On the first day it was to be used, even his grandmother was invited to come see the new machine in action. Rosling’s grandmother thought the washing machine was a miracle.

Rosling smoothly transitioned into a discussion about women all around the globe who wash laundry by hand, often with water from streams and rivers, heated with firewood. He then bucketed all of humanity into four categories based on our electricity generation and usage. A few points from his presentation—presented below in words far less effectively than he presented it in his simple, straightforward, and visual way:

  1. The “fire people”—29% of humans—consume <8% of the earth’s fossil fuel energy. Two billion of the 7 billion human beings on the planet live on less than $2 USD a day. They don’t have electricity. They heat water and cook food over open fire. They don’t always have enough food. The fire people use less than one unit of the world’s 12 units of fossil fuel energy (oil, coal, or gas).
  2. The “bulb people”—43% of us—consume ¼ of the energy. Three billion people live between the poverty line and the “wash line” (meaning people have washing machines). The bulb people have electricity but no washing machine. They use 3 units of the world’s 12 units of fossil fuel energy.
  3. The “wash people”—14% of the population—use 17% of the energy. One billion people live above the wash line. They have washing machines, but not a house full of other machines and devices. They live on about $40 a day. The wash people use about 2 units of the world’s energy.
  4. The “air people”—1/7 of the world’s population—consume ½ of its energy. The remaining 1 billion humans spend more than $80/day on their consumption. They live above the “air line.” They have a house full of machines and travel around the globe in airplanes. Air people consume 6 of the 12 units of the earth’s fossil fuel energy.

Rosling wrapped up his presentation with a brief analysis of the future. By 2050, he predicted, total energy usage will be 22 units (compared to 12 units in 2010). The richest people will still use most of the units. Two trends that will affect growth in the use of energy: population growth and economic growth.  The vast majority will come from economic growth. The solution?  We will need more energy efficient machines, changes in behavior, and more green energy.

Rosling said that when he was a kid, he liked the washing machine because his mother would load it up and then take him to the library. “Thank you steel mill, chemical processing industry – you gave us time to read books.” The beauty in wrapping data in a story is that then people can then internalize the meaning of the numbers. And that’s the whole point, right?