What Truly Open Data Should Look Like

By Martha Kang 29 Jun, 2015

How many people died of heart disease last year? Is child obesity on the rise? What’s the biggest health threat Americans face?

The answers to these questions can help save lives by driving improvements in care and prevention. And thanks to open data initiatives, the public has access to the numbers that hold the answers.

But that’s not enough, says Ramon Martinez, a health metrics adviser with the Pan American Health Organization.

“If we put the data set to the public, only a few people can benefit from that,” says Ramon.

It’s like giving someone a printout of an EKG test. Unless that person has the know-how to decipher the meaning, the information proves useless.

The same holds true for big health data, which requires analytics skills to comprehend. That’s why simply releasing the numbers doesn’t fully serve the public, says Ramon.

“It’s important to share data sets. But together with data sets, try to provide visualization tools that allow users to explore the data, to answer questions,” he says.

Ramon recently made the case for transforming open data at Health Datapalooza, an annual conference on health data innovations. To make open data initiatives truly meaningful, says Ramon, the insights within the data should be accessible to all, including those without analytics skills or access to data tools.

“We need to put the data in a way that someone who participates in a decision can get the information,” he says.

Ramon himself practices what he preaches. As he puts it, he “takes rows and columns of data and transforms them into something that has meaning.” His interactive dashboards visualize various health metrics like obesity trends, life expectancy, and the prevalence of diabetes as seen below.

Accessible insights can inform research, policies, and decisions, says Ramon, but the practice has yet to catch on in the world of health data.

“Today, just a few groups of professionals in public health are doing this kind of job,” he says. “Some people are analyzing data, but they’re not putting the end results in a way that’s accessible to the public.”

He hopes others will join him in creating dynamic health-data visualizations that empower others to pose their own questions.

“We have to provide to the end user, the reader, the ability to explore the data and find their own story. That is the whole thing,” says Ramon. “We need to liberate the data.”

Check out additional visualizations by Ramon Martinez on his Tableau Public page and on his blog, Health Intelligence.