HealthData+ Helps Local Health Departments Bring Numbers to Life

Ann Whidden, Director of Communications, Public Health Institute

October 27, 2015
Ann Whidden
Ann Whidden

Matthew Willis, Marin County's public health officer, wants to help community members, policymakers, and local health leaders understand why people in the county's poorest census tract tend to die 17 years earlier than those in the wealthiest. His team has been using data to measure the problem, which is related to stunning disparities in cardiovascular mortality. They also want to use storytelling to promote the solution: universal access to primary care along with early prevention measures.

He's using HealthData+ to tell that story.

HealthData+ is a pilot initiative, launched this year by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF). The initiative works with seven California counties to bring their data to life using LiveStories, a data visualization company, that transforms data sets into beautifully designed graphs, charts, and tailored maps. "We built an initiative . . . to help users easily visualize, discuss, and present the data that matters," says LiveStories founder Adnan Mahmud. "HealthData+ drives storytelling through data — but more importantly, it empowers decisionmakers to drive change."

The Public Health Institute, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting health and quality of life, brings data curation, storytelling, and strategic health communications expertise to the initiative. A library of public datasets is supplied by Civic Knowledge, an open data research and consulting firm.

The initiative was conceptualized by CHCF's Associate Director for External Engagement Andy Krackov, who serves as adviser, after seeing the barriers faced by those using data to influence decisionmaking:

California Health Care Foundation's Andy Krackov on HealthData+ from Public Health Institute on Vimeo.

Participants in HealthData+ receive support with data curation; graphic design, data visualization, video, and photography; and training in the basics of storytelling, message framing, and strategic communications. To help demonstrate the power of the platform, the Public Health Institute created Making Way for the Happiest Birth Days. Inspired by CHCF's infographic A Tale of Two Births, this story illuminates the costly phenomenon of medically unnecessary cesarean sections and allows viewers to see disparities in c-section rates among their local hospitals.

HealthData+ participants in Monterey and Sonoma counties have begun using LiveStories to create digital stories about the challenge of affordable housing and the health of farmworkers. As data are updated in the future, the new numbers will automatically appear on the charts and graphs in the reports.

In the Clear Lake region of Northern California, Lake County Tribal Health leads 16-week diabetes prevention classes to raise awareness of the disease and reduce risk among Native Americans. The program requires participants to lose 5% to 7% of their body weight and encourages them to make maintenance of their weight a lifetime goal. Diabetes educator Gemalli de Leon used LiveStories to build consensus among local providers about the need for expanding culturally tailored diabetes education and screening programs. Participants in her program received training in digital storytelling, and Gemalli integrated their short videos directly into her HealthData+ story.

Buoyed by the enthusiastic responses and compelling stories created by the counties, the HealthData+ team used the platform to create an entry for the US Obesity Data Challenge. The challenge, sponsored by the de Beaumont Foundation in collaboration with the Health Data Consortium (HDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was designed to harness the power of health data through "visualization tools that curated and mashed up open data sources to help communities, health officials, and health care practitioners address obesity, which affects one out of every three Americans."

The HealthData+ team's submission, titled HealthData+Obesity, won the first-place US award and a $20,000 prize.

HealthData+Obesity provides a carefully curated dashboard, with data, visuals, and text that help local health officers easily communicate about the larger social and environmental factors known to drive obesity within a community — and what people can do about them. Watch the team's video to find out more about the winning tool:

HealthData+Obesity from Public Health Institute on Vimeo.

Moving forward, HealthData+ hopes to create templates that will enable public health departments to re-use or adapt stories or story elements created by other counties by integrating their own data. For example, many counties are working on the same issues: tracking influenza cases during flu season, encouraging local collaboration on prescription painkiller abuse, lowering infant mortality, and shining light on the path to greater equity in health and health care. Such common priorities may allow counties to share content intended to raise awareness or to invite community members to take part in local initiatives.

The HealthData+ team plans to expand the initiative beyond California. Visit healthdataplus.org to find out more.