The news cycle often makes it seem like the world is always getting worse. But when looking at the long arc of global history, particularly through a lens informed by data, it becomes clear that, in many cases, that picture is misleading.
That’s what Max Roser, a researcher from Germany, realized. As a student, he felt powerless when thinking about issues like hunger, poverty, public health, and climate change. But while pursuing graduate degrees in philosophy and economics, Roser came to understand a startling fact about the world: It was, by many measures, much better than the one our predecessors inhabited. Over the last few decades, extreme poverty has fallen, literacy has risen, and people are living longer, healthier, freer lives than at any point in human history. As Roser put it in an interview, “I used to be a pessimist, but the data shows the world improving.”
In 2011, while he was working as a researcher in Brazil, he founded Our World in Data, an online publication focused on making the data about the world’s biggest problems easily accessible to the public. With easy-to-grasp data visualizations, one could see just how far humanity had come in the last century alone — from a reduction in maternal mortality to increase in internet access. And unlike academic journals or databases, the information Our World in Data has curated is free and reusable by the public, eliminating a large barrier to the spread of this kind of knowledge.
”Many of us don’t have a good understanding of global problems and change. This is not because the evidence isn’t available,” Roser wrote in 2019. “Unfortunately it is very poorly communicated, with the research hidden behind paywalls and the data stored in dull, inaccessible databases. And science that is not communicated is of not much help, it is just a stack of papers in a drawer.”
What started as a personal project by Roser has today grown into a widely respected publication, now based at the University of Oxford with a team of more than 25 people. In 2021 alone, it saw more than 89 million global visitors, and many academic institutions and media organizations (Vox included) use Our World in Data as a resource.
Our World in Data’s work not only made sense of humanity’s past, but of the present as well. While many governments and media organizations initially struggled to provide accessible data on the Covid-19 pandemic, Roser and his team jumped into action, and their research was essential to helping people understand the scope of the pandemic.
In addition to being the director of Our World in Data, Roser is also a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development. With his colleagues at Oxford, he started companion projects looking at economic inequality and tracking the world’s progress on reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In all of his work, Roser wants people to take away one simple yet difficult truth: “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time.”