Harnessing Health Data for Counties

Data have the potential to dramatically improve decisionmaking at all levels of government, but only if elected officials can do so without being overwhelmed with information.

February 2014

To encourage California county supervisors to integrate health data into their policymaking process, the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) seeks to develop a tool that provides local policymakers with access to sophisticated displays of health data relevant to them. For example, a map of poverty rates by zip code, or a trend graph of insurance coverage, can paint a picture of their constituents in a simple, powerful way.

The effort is part of CHCF's largerĀ Free the Data initiative focused on improving access to government data and catalyzing use of those data by multiple stakeholders, including journalists, entrepreneurs and developers, consumers, and policymakers.

Phase I: Understanding the Need

With this project, CHCF first sought to understand how health data are used to support policymaking in California's 58 counties.

In 2013, CHCF interviewed a group of California county supervisors and their staff to hear how they use (and would like to use) data to inform their decisionmaking. Many noted the difficulty of incorporating data into their work, either because they are inundated by information; lack staff capacity to obtain, analyze, and visualize these data; or because the data are too old and unavailable at the geographic level needed.

The research identified wide variations in counties' ability to analyze and leverage data. A "data-rich" county, for example, may have resources for collecting data as well as the staff to navigate federal, state, and local data sources.

For many counties, however, the labor-intensive steps involved in finding, analyzing, and visualizing data are beyond their means. Interviewees noted that many decisions are made without defensible data and that having access to organized, distilled health data would be a vast improvement.

Phase II: Finding Solutions

CHCF is cataloguing data that are readily available to support county health policymaking and is prototyping a data display / decision-support tool that will integrate publicly available data to inform local health policy and budget decisions.

As part of this process, CHCF has established a roundtable of county policymakers, health department directors, and representatives from state agencies to provide guidance on both content issues and design approaches.