Governments should make the data they collect freely available to citizens so they can use it to develop new businesses and improve their ability to run existing companies, says the founder of Gapminder.com.
Hans Rosling, a professor of health information at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, said governments spend $10bn a year collecting information, but with the exception of the US and recently the UK, very little of it is freely available to citizens. "But we have already paid for it," he said in a keynote address to the Teradata user conference in Berlin this week.
Rosling said he expected the World Bank to change its policy of not publishing its data sets in July. He called on the OECD, another inter-government think-tank, to do the same. He praised UK prime minister Gordon Brown for setting up data.gov.uk under web inventor Tim Berners-Lee to provide public access to data collected by the government.
When this data is made available, people can deal with the world as it is, and often find it a surprising place, he said.
Using data on the number of children women have and GDP figures, Rosling showed that there are now fewer economic differences between countries than expected. "The population growth rate is flattening out," he said. "There may be nine billion people in 40 years, but they will all have a better standard of living than most of us expect."
This would have profound effects on the products and services they would want, and who would deliver then, he said.
Rosling said women in Bangladesh now had an average of 2.4 children, and that this was being replicated in developing economies as far apart as Mexico and Vietnam.
"People are agreeing in the privacy of their bedrooms to limit the number of children they have, to make sure that they stay healthy and get a good education and good jobs," he said.
Rosling paid tribute to George W Bush for convening the G20 in the wake of the banking crisis. This was acknowledgement that the world is converging, he said. "The rich West was broke and the so-called poor countries had all the money," he said.
Bill and Melinda Gates donated $3bn to improve health care in Africa, which was very praise-worthy and welcome. But that was what China earned in three days, he said.
Rosling predicted that the Indian and Chinese standards of living would equal Britain's on 27 July 2048, his 100th birthday.
He could demonstrate this using software developed by his son and daughter-in-law, which Google had bought and now formed the basis of Google's public data service. Anyone could use this data to plan what they wanted to do, even to set up data-based businesses.
Rosling said there was a "high probability" that climate change would disrupt the present economic growth forecasts. But by comparing national energy sources against carbon dioxide outputs it was possible to get enough information to make choices.
"Sweden and France have among the lowest carbon footprints on the planet, but they are both big users of nuclear power. So you choice is carbon dioxide or nuclear waste," he said.
Despite China producing as much carbon dioxide as the US, when measured on a per capita basis, China's carbon footprint was one-fifth of America's, he said. "We have to compare these thing fairly if we are to make the right decisions," he said.
Rosling said he could predict the economic future for every country except South Africa. "It could go either way," he said.