Comparing countries – the raw facts…

Two of my favourite blogs are Flowing Data and Information is Beautiful – both highlight clever ways of analysing and visualizing data, which is an important component of my job. Moreover, they both occasionally have posts relating to the R statistics software which I use daily (I’ve probably spent more hours using R in the last three years than all my other software combined!). Recently both blogs had links to sites that compare different metrics between countries – so of course I checked out the statistics for Finland, and compared them to South Africa where data were available for both countries.

I’ll already make a disclaimer here – these stats must definitely be taken with a BIG pinch of salt. I’m suspicious of almost all stats on the internet, but have at least some trust in sources like the CIA world factbook (although I’d not believe their data on number of weapons of mass destruction per country…) which is the source for many of these sites.

If It Were My has a beautiful interface, and shows the relative size of the countries being compared using GoogleMaps. I didn’t realize that South Africa was so much bigger than Finland! You can see the complete comparison here.

The size of Finland relative to South Africa (from

Some of the stark contrasts between South Africa and Finland (from


Of course some stats are missing – like the probability of the country becoming the rugby or ice hockey world champions, the probability of it being a sunny day, the probability of being able to ski to the office, the probability of getting stuck in traffic, the probability of having a friendly person help you at the shops or the police station – and I would guess that those number probably matter more than the numbers extracted from the world factbook.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) new Better Life Index has a great way of displaying the statistics for its 34 member countries (apparently SA is some sort of an associate member [along with Brazil, China, etc.] and it’s data will be added in the near future). You are able to give your own weightings to the different performance criteria – and rank the countries by what you think is important (and I think some of these numbers are probably more relevant than those from IfItWereMyHome). So for example, if you value a good work-life balance and a healthy environment strongly, then this site suggests that the Nordic countries (that includes Finland), Canada and Australia are top in those regards (and you probably wouldn’t be very happy in Turkey!). You can see Finland’s statistics here.

A few snippets from the OECD comparison of Finland:

  • “76% of mothers are employed after their children begin school, suggesting that women are able to successfully balance family and career”
  • “Concerning the public sphere, there is a strong sense of community and high levels of civic participation in Finland. 93% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in a time of need”
  • “When asked, 86% of people in Finland said they were satisfied with their life, much higher than the OECD average of 59%”

In terms of scientific output, SCImago summarizes data from the Scopus database. It allows you to compare and rank countries and journals by publication metrics, with the option of considering specific research fields or subjects. It is interesting to see how similar South Africa and Finland are in terms of ecological research – see the graph below, or all the information here. Finland is spending a little over 3% of their GDP on research and development – South Africa by contrast trying to increase R&D spending to 1% of GDP.

South Africa and Finland seem to produce a similar number of scientific papers in the field of ecology annually (from - they have lots more info if you are interested)

For fun, you might want to check out – it’ll tell you that Finland is 74 % covered by forest (3rd highest percentage globally) and has the highest proportional enrollment in tertiary education in the world. By contrast, South Africa is the larger producer of gold and the 5th largest of coal (as well as unfortunately having some of the scariest AIDS and TB statistics globally).

And finally from Kai Krause, via FlowingData – comparing Africa and Europe’s sizes:

The true size of Africa (from




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