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Tribute to Hans Rosling

9th February 2017

A sea monster had terrorized sailors and fish alike but it was now lurking, still dangerous, just beneath the water’s surface. That was the metaphor Hans Rosling used at Liberia’s Ebola coordination meeting on November 12th, 2014, packed with government officials, international partners and NGOs, leading the response to the largest Ebola outbreak in history. At the start of October there were 60 new Ebola cases every day and now there were just 20. Hans was warning us not to let our guard down – the threat was less visible but not defeated. Strange metaphor? I thought so too. But in the coming days, I heard many – especially Liberians – referring to that sea monster.

Famed Swedish data guru Hans Rosling passed away this week and though I didn’t know him well, for two months starting in November 2014, I worked closely with him on Liberia’s Ebola response. The sea monster story highlights two things I won’t forget about Hans: the trust he built with Liberian Ebola responders and his genius for communicating the meaning of data.

He just walked into the office and introduced himself,” said Luke Bawo, Liberia’s head of epidemiological surveillance. Then 66 years old, Hans came to the country in October 2014 without a mandate or connection to a specific organization like the World Health Organization (WHO). So he had to figure out how and where he could be helpful which is why he sought out Bawo. Hans was willing to do mundane but essential tasks – like cleaning up misspellings and data in Excel sheets - that too many international staff I met felt were beneath them. Liberian Government officials deeply appreciated that roll-up-your-sleeves approach, always eager to pull “Prof Hans” into meetings to get his opinions.

Mapping out the complex Ebola data system: Hans and Moses Badio, Monrovia's epidemiological surveillance lead

His frequent presentations to the Incident Management System – the Ebola coordination body – on new cases around the country were mesmerizing, even without the razzle-dazzle graphics that made his TED Talks famous. I’ve never seen complex data communicated in such a clear, intelligible way. When the number of Ebola cases had dipped to a handful a week, Hans cleverly switched his graphs to a logarithmic scale which visually underscored that the battle against Ebola wasn't over yet.

He didn’t hesitate to voice his views on issues well beyond data, often frustrating officials from the UN, WHO and US government. Since Hans came to Liberia unaffiliated with those institutions, his ideas were sometimes unconventional, unburdened by their rules and protocols. At one point he advocated for the controversial concept of coordinating the Ebola response from multiple communities around Greater Monrovia. An exasperated friend of mine working for an international organization half-joked to me that the problem was Hans was so gifted at communicating his ideas that everyone ended up agreeing – even if he might be wrong.

Many familiar actors played indispensable roles in tackling Liberia’s Ebola crisis: government officials, international donors, technical advisors and NGOs. Hans Rosling was in a category of his own. After all, who else could have created a life-saving sea monster?