logo: globalization

Globalization (2008)

Unveiling the Beauty of Statistics for a Fact Based World View

Dennis M. Ray
Faculty of Management
Royal Roads University
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Introduction: A Call to Disaggregate International Governmental and National Databases

The title of this article comes from the tagline of an extraordinary initiative by the Gapminder Foundation founded in Stockholm by Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Hans Rosling on February 25, 2005. Before discussing the Gapminder Foundation, it might be useful to reflect on how we empirically know what we know about the world and globalization?

One of the significant problems for a fact based world view is that the databases of the United Nations, World Bank, the IMF and its useful Direction of Trade, and other international governmental organizations (IGOs) is that they all operate on a state-centric view of the world. That view conceptually obscures some of the most important global trends, which include international economic transactions by non-state actors and transactions city-to-city and from region-to-region. For example, if we measure only the trade and investment between the United States and China and not the trade between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, we get only a rough approximation of reality. If we looked, or more accurately if we could look at the disaggregated data, we might find that the economic ties between Silicon Valley and Taiwan and between Taiwan and Fujian province in China were much stronger than let’s say the economic ties between Silicon Valley and the rest of the United States or between Fujian province and the rest of China. The relatively obscure but important and path breaking work of AnnaLee Saxenian supports this view.1

If we want to fully appreciate globalization, we need databases that are disaggregations of the nation-state paradigm, have lower geographic levels of analysis and which are more granular. The nation-state remains an important actor but it is not the only significant governmental actor, let along non-state actors, driving globalizing. In 1983, a good friend was an economic developer for the city of Santa Ana, California attended an economic development conference and trade show in Hong Kong. He reported to me later that there were upwards to 500 states, counties and cities from North America attending this international conference attempting to attract Chinese foreign direct investment. At about the same time, the Los Angeles Times published an article on a new industry cluster in Los Angeles. The city had become the point of entry for toy manufacturers throughout East Asia and had become a $10 billion import industry. This was a precursor of the flood of cheap Chinese toys and other consumer products into the U.S. and world markets. It first appeared as a blip on our consciousness but this early impact on a single city was significant.

Why is it that IGO databases are aggregated at the level of the nation-state instead of providing disaggregated data on the direction of trade or the flow of foreign direct investment at the state (provincial), and city level? I have asked outstanding research librarians in four countries over the last twenty years try to help me find international economic transaction data disaggregated by state (province) or city and county to no avail. Certainly, the original trade data has to be collected at a specific point of export or entry, the Port of Los Angeles, for example or the investment data collected from firms with operations in specific locations.

The reasons for the absence of data disaggregated by state and city is that the state-centric model still holds data collection and reporting hostage to antiquated paradigms of how the world is organized. After all, national governments collect and use the data for their own purposes. They have always done it this way, so why should they change?

Here are some reasons why they should change.

We can make some general inferences on each of these issues by looking at aggregate data for nation-states as a whole because there are so many countries out there. But from the perspective of national and regional public policy, the data for small countries might not apply to California, Texas, or Florida or the Province of British Columbia or Alberta.

Conceptually, how we collect and report data shapes our consciousness of the world. Thus, we tend to see globalization as having a huge impact on nation-states. But is globalization really so intrusive on the whole of larger nation-states such as Russia, China, India, Australia, Canada, and the United States or is its impact more powerful on select cities? For the last 30 years, it has struck me that globalization was more about cities that nation-states. The great cities of the world increasingly are microcosms of the world itself. As a native of Los Angeles, in 1981, long before globalization became a buzz word or the focal point of academic journals, I was searching for the recently opened offices of my international bank. I parked in the vicinity of the new location and when I stopped and asked six different people on sidewalks for help, none of them spoke English. This was about a mile from where I was born.

What percent of the world’s population would be unable to find a native speaking individual within a mile of their birthplace? Where that percentage has increased sharply, what would the nature of the location? Most probably, it would be a global city like Los Angeles. Los Angeles is said to have more Mexicans than any city in the world except Mexico City; more Koreans than any city in the world other than Seoul; more Armenians, and more fill in an ethnic or national place of origin category. If globalization is first and foremost about the globalization of cities, should not economic databases be structured so as to facilitate a more accurate measurement of this reality?

The Gapminder Foundation2

The Gapminder Foundation has made an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of global issues on a number of fronts. First, it has mined IGO databases to produce not just snapshots of our world but a dynamic data and video-based view of our world. Second, at a time when databases are becoming increasingly privatized and out of the financial reach of individuals, both inside and outside the academic community, the Gapminder Foundation is sharing its data as a kind of socio-economic “freeware.” Third, the Gapminder Foundation has developed software that allows us to observe change in the global system, albeit aggregated at the nation-state level of analysis. Fourth, it has chosen to present its data in the form of a scatterplot using regression analysis.

It may be a small point, but regression analysis is a powerful, perhaps under-utilized decision tool at various levels of decision-making including the nation-state, state, and corporate level. Every regression line is a “norm of interaction” or a “norm of behavior” between two or more variables. In the case of the Gapminder Foundation, using data points reflecting the size of the nation-state enriches their linear scatterplots. In their case, they portray children dying before the age of 5 per 1,000 live births as a dependent variable with gross national income per capita in U.S. dollars as in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Gapminder World Chart 2006

Figure 1: Gapminder World Chart 2006

The plot in Figure 1 is a global norm of interaction or behavior relating income with child mortality. From a public policy perspective, deviations from that norm ought to raise important questions. Why, for example, are the United Sates, South Africa, and Angola so far below their norm relative to their national income per capita? Why are Zimbabwe, Vietnam and the Czech Republic above the norm relative to their national income per capita?

With this brief introduction, the reader is invited to visit the extraordinary website of the Gapminder Foundation and discover for themselves the next generation of database analysis.

See: http://www.ted.com/index.html/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

For information on the Foundation, please visit: www.gapminder.org

What the Gapminder Foundation has done is, in many respects, a revolution in database analysis and graphic presentation. Its tagline: “Unveiling the Beauty of Statistics for a Fact Based World View” is important well beyond its cleverness. In a world where not wanting to know and anti-intellectualism seems to increasingly influence public and corporate policy, it is important that our public and institutional discourse be informed by facts not shouting and rhetoric. The United States now substitutes shouting and propaganda for news reporting in much of its for-profit mass media. Public television and National Public Radio must struggle against ideological forces both inside and outside of government to remain among the few sanctuaries for honest reporting of international and domestic affairs. The outgoing Presidential administration of George W. Bush has often replaced an honest exploration of facts with ideology, narrow corporate or class-based economic self-interest, and theological precepts in a wide range of policy arenas. For example, consider the issue is weapons of mass destruction, itself a deceptive term3, in Iraq, the recruitment of civilian political overseers for the U.S. in Iraq, or the status of the war effort. The administration’s record on tax policy, global warming, environmental degradation, K (kindergarten) -12 public education, stem cell research, or birth control has little regard for empirical evidence and facts. Its policy towards deregulation, foreign debt, Federal budget deficits, and cumulative government, corporate, and private debt has been based on fantasy and a systematic policy of not wanting to know. The United States under the Bush Administration may be the most egregious example of living in a non-fact based world among developed nation-states but it is hardly alone. Hopefully, the Gapminder Foundation will be a catalyst to a renewed appreciation of the value of pursuing empirical reality however elusive, convoluted, and complex it might be.


This essay has made a plea for IGOs and nation-states to disaggregate their databases so that researchers, policy makers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can gain a richer, more granular, view of the reality of globalization. The Gapminder Foundation provides us with a fantastic database base and exemplary model of what can be done when the mysteries of databases are unlocked and portrayed in ways consistent with the advances modern statistical and graphic software. Data can be incredibly informative and when it informs, the resulting knowledge can be liberating.

In a world where ideology erodes and gradually replaces knowing and where the privatization of information and data for profits shrinks our public domain of data and potential knowledge, the Gapminder Foundation also sets forth an extraordinary example of the value of facts and free access to databases.

Hopefully, the readers of Globalization and this article will find the Gapminder Foundation’s website useful in their research, will work to find ways of help to disaggregate and liberate more IGO and national government databases, and will find new and powerful applications of the data already available for analysis.


1. A Google or Yahoo search of AnnaLee Saxenian will produce this URL:  http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~anno/Papers/. For a full list of the papers on the listed on the website see Appendix A.

2. A special thanks to Glynn Pearson, one of my MBA students at Royal Roads, University, for introducing me to Gapminder

3. Chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) weapons are hardly weapons of “mass destruction.” While the consequences of their use conjure up scary images, they are relatively unstable weapons in a battlefield situation and have limited geographical impact. This is how they used to be described when the author was an undergraduate at the U.S. Air Force Academy and was selected to research and lecture to lower classman on the subject.

Appendix A:

Publications of AnnaLee Saxenian from a Non-State-Centric View of International Economic Transactions:

Roepke Lecture in Economic Geography Venture Capital in the "Periphery": The New Argonauts, Global Search, and Local Institution Building (PDF)

A Fugitive Success: Finland's Economic Future (PDF)

The International Mobility of Entrepreneurs (PDF)

America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part II (PDF)

The New Argonauts (PDF)

From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation: Transnational Communities and Regional Upgrading in India and China (PDF)

The Age of the Agile (PDF)

America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part I (PDF)

Silicon Valley's New Immigrant High-Growth Entrepreneurs (PDF)

Brain Circulation: How High-Skill Immigration Makes Everyone Better Off (PDF)

Brain Circulation and Chinese Chipmakers: The Silicon Valley-Hsinchu-Shanghai Triangle (PDF)

'Old Economy' Inputs for 'New Economy' Outcomes: Cluster Formation in the New Silicon Valley (PDF)

Government and Guanxi: China's Software Industry in Transition (PDF)

Transnational Communities and the Evolution of Global Production Networks: Taiwan, China and India (PDF)

Taiwan's Hsinchu Region: Imitator and Partner for Silicon Valley (PDF)

Bangalore: The Silicon Valley of Asia? (HTML)

The Limits of Guanxi Capitalism: Transnational Collaboration between Taiwan and the USA (HTML)

Comment on Kenney and von Burg, 'Technology, Entrepreneurship and Path Dependence: Industrial Clustering in Silicon Valley and Route 128' (PDF)

Bay-to-Bay Strategic Alliances — The Network Linkages Between Taiwan and the US Venture Capital Community (HTML)

Inside-Out: Regional Networks and Industrial Adaptation in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (PDF)

Creating a Twentieth Century Technical Community: Frederick Terman's Silicon Valley (HTML)

The Bangalore Boom: From "Brain Drain" to "Brain Circulation" (HTML)

The Limits of Autarky: Regional Networks and Industrial Adaptation in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (HTML)

The Silicon Valley-Hsinchu Connection: Technical Communities and Industrial Upgrading (PDF)

"A Valley Asset" Editorial in San Jose Mercury News (PDF)

Wall Street Journal — Technology Journal Asia: "Back to India" (HTML)