Finding success in using data visualization to inform residents and media about one of the world’s most persistent and sometimes deadly ailments, officials at one Missouri consolidated city-county agency have future plans to use the tool among area hospitals to create efficiencies and maintain their nonprofit status.

After almost 150 years in business, the nearly 300,000 residents of Greene County, Mo.; and of Springfield, the county seat, have come to rely on the Springfield-Greene County Health Department (SGCHD) for information.

Like agencies around the world, SGCHD faces an ongoing, yearly battle with influenza — but lately, it has begun bringing a data visualization platform from Seattle-based LiveStories to the fight, doing more to give its customers the most up-to-date information.

In the U.S., the flu is in the midst of another aggressive season that is seeing outpatient visits for treatment of the virus continue to rise more than two months in, fueled by a rise in so-called Type A, subtype H3N2 flu cases, which are particularly hard to stop.

There’s no such thing as a typical season, Kathryn Wall, public health information administrator for SGCHD, said, noting that an aphorism among health officials is that “if you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season.”

SGCHD officials first tested LiveStories internally during the fall of 2016, when its performance management and quality improvement team used the tool to hone their objectives. Then, in November 2016, it debuted a men’s health LiveStory around the observance of “Movember”; as well as the flu LiveStory.

Last fall, during its second season of offering a regularly updated flu LiveStory webpage with information on cases, a guide to symptoms and treatment resources, SGCHD has noticed a decline in calls from media and residents.

It’s a trend that’s continuing this year and the agency credits the new data visualization, which tracks cases by week, flu type and age of victim; and offers tips for the ailing, parents and pregnant women.

“We have a lot of data right at our fingertips, and in the past we have been great about communicating that with our public in a relevant way,” Wall said.

“From just an anecdotal perspective, I get far fewer media calls, even in this year when it’s definitely something much more high-profile, because people are going to the page and learning for themselves,” she added.

Hard evidence of the tool’s impact is still being created, but when officials ramped up communication in their flu LiveStory late in 2017, they saw a marked response. Pageviews more than tripled during that timeframe, from 443 in November to 1,327 in December. And interest in new data during the year’s final month accounted for nearly a third of the year’s entire pageviews, which were 5,088.

The data visualization tool, which is subscription-based with rates depending upon the number of subscribers per agency, securely houses agencies’ data in the cloud, and offers governments assistance in finding and cleaning that information — overcoming a key hurdle, LiveStories CEO Adnan Mahmud said.

He said it offers a trifecta of features, managing data requests; replacing PDFs with dynamic Web content; and offering the availability of a dashboard tool.

“If you look at civic data and the steps that people have to go through to work with it, you have finding the data, cleaning the data and then exploiting the data for insight. In that experience, 80 percent of the time is spent on finding and cleaning the data. Our conversion happens pretty quickly,” Mahmud said.

LiveStories also offers subscribers access to its library of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other resources.

Other agencies utilizing LiveStories to visualize data of their own include the California Health and Human Services Agency, which used the tool in 2016 to track its progress in making hospitals seismically resilient; and the global network 100 Million Healthier Lives (100MHL), convened by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

100MHL began using the tool in late 2016 in its flagship initiative Spreading Community Accelerators through Learning and Evaluation; and involved communities have since told a range of stories through it, encompassing everything from food availability to infant mortality. 

At Springfield-Greene County, the tool’s ease of use has empowered staffers to generate creative stories easily. Automatic updates to the spreadsheet behind the flu LiveStory, which happen weekly, have opened an agencywide window on information.

“Especially in a health department that — we are doing everything from animal control to Zika — we don’t know what each other has. Everywhere that we have this page live, it just updates the data, which really streamlines the process,” Wall said.

Now, the flu LiveStory success has sparked another collaboration: SGCHD will work with two area caregivers, the Mercy Hospital System and CoxHealth to create a LiveStory to go live in 2019 documenting their community health needs assessment, required every three years by the Internal Revenue Service to maintain nonprofit status.

Wall, who worked on the previous assessment, which went live in 2016, said it was a “great report that was completely unnecessary by 2016” as its data aged. With LiveStories, she said, “this data can remain fresh.”

“As far as we’re aware, we have been one of the first communities to take this structure of bringing all the hospital systems together and doing this,” Wall said. “And we’re very excited for what that living document will be."