The Data Stops Here

by Andy Krackov

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Editor's Note: The California HealthCare Foundation publishes iHealthBeat.

In California, a county supervisor is considering budget cuts to a local public hospital that could affect thousands of residents. Where can she turn for data?

In an ideal world, that supervisor would have ready access to local breakdowns on poverty, insurance status, hospital finances and the prevalence of chronic conditions, among other measures. Some of this information exists at a local level, but it requires searching across an assortment of government sources, from the local health department to state agencies to the federal government. Accessing such a disorganized array is tough to do with limited staff resources.

The reality is that too few local officials can readily tap the data needed to make decisions about health care in their communities.

Earlier this year, we interviewed California county supervisors and their staffs to better understand how they now use (and would like to use) data to inform decision making. Many individuals noted that they find it difficult to incorporate data into their work, either because they are inundated by information, don't know where to get the data they need, or because the data are too old or not geographically granular (such as by city or ZIP code).

If access is one part of the problem, translating available data into "actionable" information is another. Even if a trove of good data exists, how can it be made available to policymakers in a useful, understandable format? Raw data in a spreadsheet won't cut it, especially if that supervisor lacks the staff to analyze it. Even in an API format, which allows computers to automatically communicate with each other to obtain and update data, there may be no capacity at the local level to program API feeds into a manageable flow of data from disparate sources that a supervisor easily can track.

Big Data on a Local Scale

The California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF), through its Free the Data initiative, is focused on finding ways to harness data to better inform health policymaking. We are proud to be a partner in the newest Knight News Challenge: Health.

As such, CHCF is sponsoring an accompanying challenge: Big Data on a Local Scale. It's based on the question: How do we get health data into the hands of city and county officials -- and spur them to use that information to improve people's lives?

CHCF has set aside $100,000 to be awarded to one or more ideas that show what can be achieved in the near term to enhance the use of health data in local policymaking. While CHCF's work is largely focused in California, we're casting a broad net in the rich tradition of the Knight News Challenge, with the hopes of attracting an array of ideas for how to access, analyze, package and visualize the vast amount of data that can be tapped. Submissions need not apply just to the Golden State, though they must be able to be implemented in California (proposals, for example, can't involve use of a dataset available only for another state).

A Data Revolution That Has Bypassed Local Elected Officials

Today, millions around the world increasingly lead data-enriched lives. Numbers surround us, guiding an array of individual decisions every day. Alerts can conveniently warn us when our bank account is running low. Apps can tell us when the next bus is coming. And personal sensors can monitor a range of important health matters, from asthma to diabetes to exercise, then synch with smart phones to show us visually, and in real time, how we're faring.

Yet this data revolution has largely bypassed local officials. Just as each of us individually can display data from our personal health sensors, a county supervisor should be able to quickly map income breakdowns by ZIP code, alongside disease prevalence, or view trend data on local insurance status compared with neighboring counties. As she tracks this issue over time, she may want to see an alert as new data become available.

We look forward to your great ideas for putting health data in the hands of local officials to support the policy decisions they make on behalf of us all.

For more information and to participate, visit www.newschallenge.org.


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