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Data Is a Critical — If Sometimes Overwhelming — Public Tool

The vast quantities of data governments collect can sometimes become too numerous to adequately tell the stories of what’s happening in our world. But interpreted well, they illustrate fact.

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When Dr. Leana Wen served as the city of Baltimore’s health commissioner, she would often amplify the point she was making by saying, “Public health saved your life today. You just didn’t know it.” Now a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, Wen is interested in helping people know the things she does.

We come to know things by example or expert opinion, although the objectivity of both can be called into question. Then there are hard numbers, alternatively called statistics or data. Sure, they can be manipulated, but they have the advantage of simply measuring what exists. As such, there is at least the implication of objectivity.

On the downside, data overwhelms. Data too numerous or complicated to be described adequately in narrative form risks losing punch or fostering confusion. Also lost is the ability to reveal substantiative trends or patterns in the data. Translating or visualizing important information can aid in readability, impact and understanding. There is a growing suite of increasingly sophisticated software (along with talented people in data science, analysis and journalism to name but three) that can produce eye-popping visualizations that bring real value and even fresh insights to old spreadsheets.

What is sometimes missing in the adoption of high-tech, high-gloss visualization is an underlying expertise — a domain or subject matter expertise. Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing, brought that domain expertise to her pioneering work as a data scientist, evolving simple pie charts into what became known as rose, or polar area, charts. At issue was that Nightingale knew that poor sanitation, not battle wounds, was the cause of death of most English soldiers during the Crimean War in the 1850s. By comparing rose charts before and after public health interventions, she showed unequivocally that preventable contagious diseases could be eliminated.

Historians and Nightingale’s biographers agree that she was motivated primarily by anger. She was reportedly incensed by the terrible conditions faced by injured soldiers in army hospitals and camps. She was even angrier that simple sanitation techniques, such as handwashing that could stop the spread of infectious diseases, were being ignored. Her charts changed that.

Her work in public health and data visualization — and her righteous anger — seems particularly relevant now, 202 years after her birth. In the United States alone, COVID-19 case counts have crested 91 million and been responsible for over a million deaths. Reports of monkeypox began earlier this year as curious isolated cases. By the end of July, at the time of this writing, cases in the U.S. had reached 5,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, a couple of centuries later, the notion that handwashing and other simple public health techniques can stop the spread of infectious diseases remains a dubious claim in some circles.

The vital public discourse around public health will only become more difficult. New viruses and mutations take time to be understood. In the interim, they are subject to politicization and disinformation. New variants are met with responses at the extremes — fear versus denial — and fatigue in the middle.

As Florence Nightingale showed us, data can help us overcome ignorance and fear. It also remains the best treatment plan for Leana Wen’s diagnosis of our current collective shortcoming so we can know with more certainty that public health saved our lives today.
Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.