Dr Pali Lehohla. File Image: IOL
Dr Pali Lehohla. File Image: IOL

The real numbers: The importance of denominators

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Mar 29, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - The late Hans Rosling, the father of “revealing the beauty of statistics concept,” must  be resting peacefully when he sees how societies across the world have taken to visualisation of data in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Hans argued during his address at the UN Statistics Commission in 2005 that we, as statisticians, were not revealing the beauty of statistics. He persuaded us to show the flowering of statistics.

Through his outfit, the Gapminder Foundation he went to influence the likes of Google and Microsoft on the visualisation of phenomena. He had dug into the archives of the world censuses of and their gross domestic product.

Rosling attached temporal instances in world affairs such as the Spanish Flu, the World Wars and China’s cultural revolution.

Juxtaposing these he superimposed changes in the science of food production and medical care. Through all these he revealed the progress measured by ascendency in life expectations of the human race. He pointed to the likely convergence of all countries to achieve higher life expectancy as infant mortality declines and smallpox and polio being wiped off the face of the earth.

Yet we get constantly reminded by pandemics such as HIV and Ebola take years of life out of the population.

Rosling provided not only a profound understanding of statistics and epidemiology of diseases but delivered tools of visualisation that the connected world now uses to reveal the beauty of statistics.

In 2007, I invited Rosling to South Africa where we engaged on the subject of the essence of statistics where he met and addressed Statistics SA field workers.

Today Apps that inform society on the evolution of the coronavirus are at hand.

Rosling was at the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic. He was an unstoppable activist. Before he passed on he had some harsh words for me about a report that I tand the Independent Accountability Panel for the Health of Mothers, Children and Adolescents released without questioning some statistics that were questionable.

He reminded us how important denominators were.

This is a topic we focused on in 2006 as African Statisticians appealed to the then finance minister Trevor Manuel and the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) Abdulaye Janneh: paying special attention for Africa undertaking censuses and ensuring that Africans registered births, deaths and cause of death. The African
Symposium for Statistical Development (ASSD) was born in 2006 and I had the honour of chairing it until my retirement. A record participation of countries in the 2010 Round of Censuses of Human Population was achieved. 

Sadly the 2020 Round of Censuses has gone back to slumber and only half of the countries might be able to count their populations in this round.

Coronavirus is a numerator in the scheme of understanding humanity. In the absence  of denominators we continue to play with the futures of human life and we shall
remain vulnerable.  Rosling believed we could do better.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.


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