Personal stories can be powerful tools for building relationships and creating meaning. They broaden horizons and connect people to the wider world. Data stories are different in one way: They take whole populations instead of individuals as their starting point. But, they have the same basic purpose of creating meaning. They put datasets in a big-picture context and tease out connections.
Spinning stories out of raw data is vital, in this era of information overload, since it’s about “connecting the dots for the reader,” says Dr. Brian Dixon, a Regenstrief Institute investigator and associate professor of epidemiology at the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health, where he teaches the “Foundations of Public Health Informatics” class.
As part of their training, his students create data stories using SAVI Advanced, which allows users to upload their own datasets and analyze them in relationship to SAVI’s data on social determinants.
“So, I can give my students a dataset with information about chronic diseases at a census tract level,” Dixon says. “Then they can upload that and connect it to social determinants data in SAVI. They can look at poverty rates, for example, and look at the relationship between poverty and diabetes, hypertension, or other chronic diseases” in a specific place. They can also contextualize that data with information from regional and national sources, like the Centers for Disease Control.
Storytelling with data can show why certain problems and programs deserve a share of limited resources, and how investing in one area can have an impact on multiple issues. More fundamentally, it highlights the value of what public health professionals do.
“Public health tends to be invisible” Dixon says. “You see police officers. You see firemen. You don’t see public health workers, unless you need to go in and get your birth certificate. That’s partly why storytelling is important to public health. It has become increasingly important as society asks, “What is the role of governmental public health? What does it do? Do we need it?”
Dixon’s work got a major vote of confidence in July, when he and a colleague won a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Library of Medicine to fund the Indiana Training Program in Public and Population Health Informatics. The first cohort of eight students started the program in July.
The program builds on and expands the Institute’s previous work in helping students learn to use technology to analyze data, and it will serve as a model for training public health professionals nationwide.
“The work we’re doing now can be transferred to other states, other regions,” Dixon says, “and go well beyond just what we’re doing in Indiana.”
The program is especially exciting, according to Dixon, because it brings together the work and research of faculty across three partnering institutions–the Regenstrief Institute, the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health, and the Indiana University School of Medicine.
SAVI is vital to the synergies created by that partnership, not only because of the data it supplies but because of the storytelling that it makes possible. “It’s one thing to produce a map or a chart,” Dixon says. “But if we’re going to be effective in changing health care policy, then we have to be able to tell that through narrative. There needs to be some story that connects it to broader issues.”