[1/100] Everyone is better off – Life expectancy increased in all countries around the world

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What this chart shows:

To start off my series of 100 charts that explain how living standards have improved over the long run I chose my data visualisation of the dramatic improvement of global health.

There is a lot of information in this unusual chart. On the x-axis you find the cumulative share of the world population. And all the countries of the world are ordered along the x-axis ascending by the life expectancy of the population. On the y-axis you see the life expectancy of each country.
For 1800 (red line) you see that the countries on the left – India and also South Korea – have a life expectancy around 25. On the very right you see that in 1800 no country had a life expectancy above 40 (Belgium had the highest life expectancy with just 40 years).
In 1950 the life expectancy of all countries was higher than in 1800 and the richer countries in Europe and North America had life expectancies over 60 years – over the course of modernisation and industrialisation the health of the population improved dramatically. But half of the world’s population – look at India and China – made only little progress. Therefore the world in 1950 was highly unequal in living standards – clearly devided between developed countries and developing countries.
This division is ending: Look at the change between 1950 and 2012! Now it is the former developing countries – the countries that were worst off in 1950 – that achieved the fastest progress. While some countries (mostly in Africa) are lacking behind. But many of the former developing countries have caught up and we achieved a dramatic reduction of global health inequality.
The world developed from equally poor health in 1800 to great inequality in 1950 and back to more equality today – but equality on a much higher level.

Data sources I used for this chart:

The data on life expectancy is taken from Version 7 of the data set published by Gapminder. The documentation is online here.

The data on the population of each country is taken from Gapminder. The data and the documentation can be found here.

The included world population in 1800 is 1,036 billion. In 1950 it is 2,72 billion. For 2012 it is the life expectancy of that year and the population measures refer to 2010 (7 billion people).

Link to OurWorldInData.org

This chart is also published on my project OurWorldInData.org in the data entry on life expectancy – where you find much more information on the how health is improving around the world.

It’s a cold, hard fact: our world is becoming a better place

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Is it actually true that we are building a better world? Or are those who claim that things are always getting worse the ones in the right? Whether we’re discussing the way of the world over a pint in the pub or dissecting the issues at an academic conference, it’s a topic that lingers constantly: how is the world changing?

The evidence to answer these questions is out there, but it is often obscured by media headlines. So we created OurWorldInData.org to present long-term data on how our world is changing. Using empirical data, visualised in graphs, we tell the history of the world that we live in, looking at long-term economic, social and environmental trends. For each topic the quality of the data is discussed and comprehensive lists of the data sources are provided, giving a trustworthy and transparent starting point for researchers.

The answers to my initial questions are very clear. The evidence shows that we are becoming less violent and increasingly more tolerant, that we are leading healthier lives, are better fed, and that poverty around the world is declining rapidly. Taking these facts into account paints a very positive picture of how the world is changing.

Because our endeavours to build a better future are, inevitably, linked to our perception of the past, it is important to understand and communicate the way our world has changed. Studying our world in data and understanding how we overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time should give us the confidence to tackle the problems we are currently facing. OurWorldInData.org both highlights the challenges that lie ahead and demonstrates that we are indeed making the world a better place.

The interactive graphic below shows the number of world citizens living under different political systems (the sources can be found in the democratisation entry on OurWorldInData). To show the percentage of people living under the different systems listed, click on ‘Expanded’.

It is easy to be cynical about the world and to maintain that nothing is ever getting better. But fortunately the empirical evidence contradicts this view. We believe it is partly due to a lack of relevant and understandable information that a negative view on how the world is changing is so very common. It is not possible to understand how the world is changing by following the daily news; disasters happen in an instant but progress is a slow process that does not make the headlines. We believe it is important to communicate to the largest audience possible that technical, academic, entrepreneurial, political, and social efforts are in fact having a very positive impact.

Our meta-database is freely available and my own data visualisations for this website are made available under a Creative Commons license. The website only launched this summer but because of the wide scope of topics and the accessibility, academics and journalists alike are already using it as a resource. Over the coming months we will expand OurWorldInData.org and to cover even more aspects of the world. To be kept up to date on our work, follow @MaxCRoser on Twitter.

  • Image above shows women preparing to vote in Iraqi elections (iStock via the original article at the Oxford Martin School)