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Google sexes up stats with Public Data Explorer

Monday, 8 March 2010

A new Google Labs project merges two breakthroughs into one. Public Data Explorer brings together a set of databases — health statistics, crime stats, oil prices, economic metrics — with a browser-based technology that lets researchers and presenters create charts that move. The motion  show trends in a way not possible with motionless plots.

Google’s motion charts are familiar to a small set of people, many of whom first saw them in a video of a presentation at the 2006 TED conference by researcher Hans Rosling, who dazzled jaded TED attendees with an 18-minute presentation of animated charts on global life expectancies and their correlations with global wealth. Roslings moving graphs debunked, he said, the presumption that there is a gap between rich and poor nations today. Instead, Rosling showed how most of the world’s population has gravitated into a middle ground over the past 40 years.

Google Public Data Explorer now makes it possible for anyone to chart public data from TK HOW MANY databases, correlate information from multiple databases, and create moving charts that can be embedded in a Web page just like a YouTube video.


The chart technology was conceived by Rosling’s son, Ola, and his wife Anna Ronnlund. The two had studied the arts rather than science in college. After Ola’s father complained over dinner in 1998 that his students at Sweden’s Sweden’s Karolinska Institute didn’t have a fact-based worldview, Ola and Anna eventually brainstormed the idea of making the elder Rosling’s bubble charts of global wealth versus child mortality into a single animation — a chart that would play over time to show emerging and evolving trends.

Eventually, Ola and Anna dubbed their tech and formed a company to develop their motion-chart idea with funding from the Swedish international aid agency Sida. Over the next couple of years they learned of the heavy demand for this kind of visual exploration tool among public agencies around the world.

At the same time they began to ve invited to tech conferences in American, where they met early personal computer visionary Alan Kay. They asked if he could help find someone who could take over this idea and develop it further. Kay gave them the ugly truth: It very unlikely, he said. They would probably have to develop it themselves. That’s how it works with most innovations.

In 2005, Anna and Ola founded the Gapminder foundation together with Hans. With his ever-more-powerful visualizations, using the technology now named Trendalyzer, Dr. Rosling was invited to more and more prestigious conferences. Eventually, he met the Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Hans was also invited to TED in 2006. His presentation, widely viewed online, got him invited to give an internal presentation at Google’s Tech Talk series. He insisted that the inventors, Anna and Ola and software engineer Johan Nystrand, give the preso instead.

You can guess how the story ends: Google acquired the Trendalyzer software from the Gapminder foundation, which still operates in parallel. Anna, Ola and three others from Gapminder were hired by Google in early 2007.  Google’s motion charts have been available in Google Docs since TK WHEN. But now, by pairing the Trendalyzer software with public databases, and letting Google’s super-scalable servers handle the work, Google hopes to empower researchers and just-plain-nosy people worldwide to make new discoveries akin to Rosling’s wealth-and-health correlations.
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