Show me the data
GAHI home page
1 Nov 2017
Nina Cromeyer Dieke

Science is organised knowledge,” said German philosopher Immanuel Kant. And there’s a lot of new knowledge all the time; PLOS journals alone have published over 160,000 articles. So how can researchers organise all that newly found knowledge?

One way is with data visualisations.

Over the last decade, thanks to software and increasing demands to better communicate science, the family of dry graphs and charts has grown to include beautifully designed infographics and powerful interactive visualisations.

The global health field is no exception. From static charity infographics to raise funds, to interactive visualisations powered by live datasets, the way we present data is evolving. And like any good story, a data viz needs to be easy to follow.

So what can global health stakeholders use data visualisations for?

To paint a complete picture

A clean and clever visualisation of various data sources can show a big picture that individual datasets cannot. A good example is the interactive visualisation of resistance of various bacteria to several antibiotics across Europe (that’s three inputs), made by social innovation think-tank Nesta. It’s an easy-to-understand overview of a 116-page report.

We asked the creator what she thinks makes a good data viz:

“I think a 'good data visualisation' is one that is useful to its audience. While easy to define, it is inevitably much harder to create a good data visualisation. That's because our audience is likely to have varying levels of expertise and awareness. Given that uncertainty we can at least aim to be confident as to the insights in our data. These insights can then inform the design of our visualisation. In the case of the [antibiotic resistance] data visualisation I was aiming to communicate the key insights from the European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's annual report to a non-specialist audience.”

– Dr Cath Sleeman, Quantitative Research Fellow, Nesta

To show gaps in research

It’s good to know what’s being done, but also what isn’t. The Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) ConnectOR offers an intuitive hover-and-click map to show NTD studies across the world, by diseases, country or study topic. The flipside are white patches where research gaps exist, AKA opportunities for further work. Similarly, the Malaria Eradication Scientific Alliance Track tool (MESA) clearly shows stark inequalities (read: opportunities) in focus regions and research themes. For these tools to support decision making they need to be comprehensive, but we’ll cover this issue in a subsequent post.

To show geographical spread

Maps are an ancient form of data visualisation. Disease maps developed by the London Applied & Spatial Epidemiology Research Group at LSHTM show NTD survey data, treatment coverage, predictive risk and water supply and sanitation. The team’s interactive maps let users choose the parameters. The technological challenge with “live” maps are large dataset sizes, meaning the tool can take time to load.

To ask, Where’s the money?

In the high-stakes game of applying for research funding, it’s useful to know if the field you’re in is traditionally under- or over-funded. Research Councils UK commissioned a visualisation of funding by research field and university, with pretty clear results (the money’s in bioengineering, according to this). A tech error plagues this data viz though: if you scroll down, the page breaks off. The challenge is to keep a tool’s software updated to run across devices and browsers.

To show impact 

Data can tell powerful stories, and visualising them is a narrative tool. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Stories Behind the Data depicts the impact of their multimillion dollar investments. The webpage cleverly loads the visualisations as users scroll through, aided by imagery, short text and indicative colours.

Of course, the examples in this article all serve more than one purpose, but they have one in common: to simplify the interpretation of data. The message to researchers should be clear: having good data is good, showing it (well) is better.

At Manta Ray Media we help global health organisations tell their data stories. Get in touch if you’d like to know more data [at] mantaraymedia.co.uk

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Nina is a science communicator specialising in global health. She’s a researcher at the BBC and has also worked at Nesta and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Twitter: @nination