Making Data Meaningful: Why Information Design is a Critical Skill for Global Health Professionals

April 15th, 2016 | Viewpoint


The global health community is data-rich.

We can download data from the World Bank and Demographic and Health Surveys to conduct secondary data analyses with the click of a mouse. Local partners use community scorecards to assess quality and availability of services on a quarterly basis across dozens of sites. Introduction of electronic HIS platforms streamlines the collection and aggregation of routine health, logistics, and human resource data. mHealth applications generate massive data sets of usage data from app users that can provide insights on where users are finding value within the app. PEPFAR reporting data drills down to the site level in order to identify hot spots for HIV within a country.

For all of that data to mean something to decision-makers, global health professionals from all technical domains need to build our skills to make data visual, accessible, and meaningful. How we share and present our findings so they’re accessible to program managers and decision-makers is the critical last step in making all of that data mean something.

While there have been incredible advances in the application and use of visualization in global health in the eight years since I started my MPH, it’s not enough to have one person on a team who is skilled at packaging information into accessible formats.

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Katie Kralievits tweeted this photo of Hans Rosling‘s presentation at last year’s MA4Health conference.

As global health professionals, we’ve all been asked to pull together a last-minute presentation or develop a report for a client on a quick deadline. When time and resources allow, it’s great to collaborate with communications, design, and data viz experts (and arguably one of the best ways to learn new skills), but that’s not always feasible, thanks to limited availability of those experts or tight timelines. When we’re flying solo, a basic grasp of design skills can make the biggest difference in the impact of whatever product you create.

We must see basic information design skills, and communication skills to understand audiences and assess their data needs, as critical to any data-related job in our field. This means teaching data visualization and design skills in our professional degree programs and emphasizing continued education for current professionals.

When we consistently visualize information in presentations, graphs, dashboards, and other materials, we unlock insights that would otherwise end up buried in a report, detailed bullets on slides, or a massive Excel file. Packaged with information about how and why the results were achieved, we can help our community do better public health overall, learning from the lessons (and mistakes) of our colleagues to push ourselves forward.

To meet the ambitious goals we’ve set through the SDGs, AIDS-Free Generation, and other global initiatives, we must continue to build our capabilities, across our industry, in designing information to excite and compel stakeholders to act. Otherwise, the people who we care most about using that data won’t sit up and pay attention to what we have to say.

Written by Amanda Makulec

Amanda is a Visual Analytics Advisor with the JSI Center for Health Information, Monitoring, and Evaluation. She facilitates workshops on data visualization design for teams around the world. You can link with data visualization enthusiasts working in development through the Data Viz Hub.

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