Berto Jongman: Data visualisation aims to change view of global health

Advanced Cyber/IO
Berto Jongman
Berto Jongman

Data visualisation aims to change view of global health

By creating a new and innovative way to look at massive amounts of patient data worldwide, one man hopes he can change the way public health crises are managed, as Cynthia Graber reports.

Imagine you are a foreign aid worker trying to persuade a senior politician in a developing world country to introduce a pneumococcus vaccination programme. It’s not just a case of stressing how the bacterium causes diseases including pneumonia, meningitis, and sinusitis, and kills over a million children under the age of five every year worldwide. The politician has to decide how to allocate scant resources. How does the death toll compare with malaria and AIDS? Aren’t road traffic accidents a bigger problem? Has vaccination been a success in neighbouring countries?

These statistics exist, but you don’t have the relevant reports and academic papers to hand. And even when you do have the information, a list of numbers may not the best way to express the strength of your case.

By creating new and innovative visual displays out of oceans of data, Christopher Murray hopes his tool can change this situation for the better. Called GBD Compare, users can rapidly determine which diseases are most harmful to children in Africa, or view how the developing and developed worlds compare in terms of heart disease, all with a few clicks of a computer mouse.

The data viz tool processes data from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report, which compiles statistics, charts and graphs on causes of death and disease. “The thing that’s really neat about the visualisations is they allow people to see the problem in context – in the context of all the other problems, how it’s changing over time, how it compares to other countries,” says Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation (IMHE), based in Seattle.

When Murray shows this tool to people outside the academic world of public health, Murray says, they immediately get it. “That just totally changes who you can engage in a thoughtful discussion about what are the key health problems and where they’re going,” he says.

The new tool has the enthusiastic backing of no less an advocate than Bill Gates, and, just three months after its launch, it’s already leading to changes in health policies.

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