My aim is to present an empirical view of the living conditions around the world and how and why they are changing.
Are more people killed in wars today? Are famines increasing or are fewer people dying of hunger? How is the situation in Africa? When did the first countries get rich – and why? Is AIDS killing more and more people? Were our ancestors that lived as hunter gatherers more peaceful than we today? Do more people kill themselves and why are there such big differences between suicide rates in different countries? Is income inequality increasing in all countries? When did the majority of the world population become literate – and does education matter for prosperity or health? How many children are getting vaccinated today?
– The view on the world that I want to present is giving answers to these questions.
Why do we need an empirical view of the world?
- Living conditions around the world are improving much faster than most people realize. Crime rates go down – but people think they go up. Global poverty is falling faster than ever – but we think it is going up. When we falsely believe that the world is getting worse it is easy to become cynic. This is sad for each person. It is also bad for all of us, people who have to turned away from the world are not engaging to help and improve the world to make it a better place.
- Having a good idea of how the world is changing is fundamental to understand why the world is changing. And understanding why the world is changing – for example why the world is getting more peaceful – is fundamental to knowing how to further the development that we want and make the world a richer, sustainable, healthier, and more peaceful place.
- It is important to have an empirical view so that we can prioritize what we need to work on. One billion people live in extreme poverty, because of premature death and disability 2.5 billion live years are lost every year. There is nothing more important than to focus on these issues and to solve them. And for this it is fundamental that we know and track these numbers.
Why don’t we have an empirical view of the world?
We are bad intuitive statisticians. This is main finding of the celebrated research of Daniel Kahneman. And it is the very fundamental reason why we don’t have an empirical view of the world. As individuals we are very bad in knowing whether crime is going up or down. We can only really know when we make an effort to collect the evidence and analyze it: when we turn single observations into quantitative data.
But the problem is also not that we don’t have this data and empirical knowledge. The research and data to give us an empirical view of the world is out there. There is fantastic research on all of the questions mentioned above! So why does this research not allow us to have an empirical view of living conditions?
- This research is presented and discussed in academic outlets that are only known to the experts in that field.
- This research is often published in journals that are unfortunately not accessible to most because they are behind pay walls.
- The research is addressed to experts in that research niche and not understandable to people who decided to specialize in something else in their life.
- This research publications are mostly focusing on the questions on the research frontier. The information we need for an empirical world view is not collected in one place but is pieced together by each researcher over the long course of her career.
- The incentives for researchers are very much on publishing original research. After the publication only few researchers are taking the incentive to make their research known. The consequence is that a lot of research is never informing anyone. The World Bank was asking the question for their own reports in the publication ‘Which World Bank Reports Are Widely Read?’. They found that 31% of their policy reports are never even downloaded once.
How do I want to present an empirical view of the world?
Some years ago when I was a student I decided that I want to change this and started drafting a book on how the world is changing. As background research for this book I started to collect empirical research and data on everything that matters for our quality of life. This got out of hand after some years and now I have a database on my computer that encompasses several hundred topics with many thousands of data sets, data visualizations, and research papers.
All of this cannot be published in a book (although I did not give up to write a book on the most important aspects). Together with Tony Atkinson – my boss in Oxford – I started to plan to publish this online. This is how I started OurWorldInData.org.
OurWorldInData.org is the web publication to present an empirical view of the world and is covering all aspects that matter for our lives. Each aspect is presented in a data entry – and each data entry is organized in these 4 sections:
The web publication is online accessible for 1 year now and I could not have hoped it goes so well (close to a million visitors and more than 100 articles on the publication).
What are the next steps?
The next steps I want to take is to involve more people and make it a collaborative publication:
For 2015 I have a small research grant from the London based Nuffield Foundation. With this money I could hire a team of researchers that work with me here in Oxford (we are currently looking for a talented web developer). We are building a data base and a data visualization tool that makes it possible to keep the site up to date for the future.
And we are preparing OurWorldInData so that in the future experts from each of the many research fields work together with us. What I’d love to built is a platform where the expert on famines is presenting an overview of the history of famines and the research on why famines happen and when famines are less likely to happen. The expert on war writes about his research topic, and so do the experts on malaria, on child mortality, on CO2 emissions, on democratization, on homicides, on wealth inequality, on income inequality and so on.
There is nothing like this today.
But there are web publication that are related:
- Open-access publication by experts in the field: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a web publication in which philosophers write on the topic that they are an expert in. It is fantastic!
- Open-access publication by quantitative researchers addressed at a broad audience: VoxEU is a web publication in which empirical economists present their latest research.
- Open access data bases: FRED from the Federal Reserve is making very useful data on the USA available. Let’s do the same for the world.
- Fantastic web publications that combine data visualizations and text: Some international organizations do great work in presenting empirical evidence to show how the world is changing: Here is Bill Gates latest annual letter. And here is a one pager from the UNICEF on the future of Africa. Both of these are great examples for the way in which I want to combine data visualizations and empirical research.
So what I will do in the next years (if get funding for it) is to combine all four and help to create an open-access web publication, written for anyone interested in global development, and co-written with experts, that uses accessible data visualizations to present empirical research on living conditions around the world, how they are changing and why.
Please get in contact, if you want to help to make fact-based world view possible. My email address is .