How I presented data on disabilities to a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Nick Hara was given two minutes to advocate for people with disabilities using data visualization. In this post, Nick shares the process behind the dashboard along with his learnings.

If you had two minutes to talk about disabilities around the world in front of the US Ambassador to the United Nations, what would you say? What action would you urge her to take? How could you get the point across effectively?

These questions aren’t hypothetical. On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) 2019, I was given two minutes to make my case that globally more needs to be done to ensure that no one is left behind. I am a Solutions Engineer for Tableau and I work with the United Nations to help them see and understand their data. I serve as a technical resource, and occasionally I get to attend some great events and show off what Tableau can do. On this day, I was at a booth showcasing technologies in the private sector that provided accessibility to persons with disabilities. In this post, we will walk through my dashboard and showcase what I learned about Sustainable Development Goals in the process.

Shining a light on data around disabilities, leveraging the Global Burden of Disease database

December 3, 2019 was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. As part of the United Nations’ commitment to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, two things are needed: more and better data, and to leave no one behind. These are core tenets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Sustainable Development Goals are a commitment that nations have made to improve the world by 2030 with facts and data.

I wanted to shine a light on the state of the data for Persons with Disabilities and take a deep dive into a subset of the data to better understand specific conditions. For the second component, I chose to focus on Micronutrient Deficiency (MND) and its links to disability.

People with disabilities are among the most vulnerable and overlooked populations in the world. I searched far and wide for a worldwide dataset with information about persons with disabilities. I found only one open dataset—the Global Burden of Disease database.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation out of the University of Washington keeps data on worldwide disability freely available to the public in the Global Burden of Disease database. The data goes back to 1990 and tracks different disabilities as well as their causes. I went to their site and pulled down the full dataset for disease caused disabilities for my analysis.

As you can see, the data is incomplete. The heat map on the right side shows countries by year. Dark blue rectangles indicate more data, lighter ones indicate less data.

The most prominent features are the gaps (notice the dark brown areas). Few nations have robust longitudinal data studying a single cause over time. This means that much of what we know is old or lacks trend information.

Less than half of all nations have updated any data since the inception of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the International Day of Persons with Disabilities presentation, I narrowed my analysis to Micronutrient Deficiency (MND) caused disability. MND occurs when the body does not receive enough vital nutrients such as iron, iodine, or vitamin A. MND can result in anemia, blindness, or intellectual disability.

MND does not affect everyone the same way. Anemia has the highest effect in the post-natal period (roughly 0-1 year).

The dark black line straddling the center of the population pyramid is the gender gap. Women are far more likely at any age to have moderate to severe anemia caused by MND.

What we can learn from this data is that anemia has a gendered component. Women tend to be the primary caretakers of young children. To alleviate post-natal anemia, we would look to new mothers. Additionally, moderate and severe anemia tends to follow women into their later years, whereas there are significantly lower rates of moderate and severe anemia among men.

Addressing iron and vitamin A deficiency effectively means that gender must be accounted for in all potential solutions. Data2x is an organization dedicated to “improving the quality, availability, and use of gender data in order to make a practical difference in the lives of women and girls worldwide.”

Anemia is just one story. There are many others. Explore the visualization for yourself.

Creating a MND scorecard for countries

The final dashboard produces an MND scorecard for individual countries. It indicates the number of years of available data, shows trends in the number of cases, and produces population pyramids for each year of available data.

Explore the visualization on Tableau Public.

To prevent MND, people need to eat a balanced diet rich in vitamin A, iron, and iodine. Meats and green veggies are good sources of vitamin A and Iron while most table salt is fortified with iodine. In advanced and middle-income countries, most people have access to balanced diets. For low-income nations and states in crisis, access to meats, veggies, and fortified salt can be difficult—even when they try to address the issue.

One study found that the most commonly consumed brand of iodized salt in Papua New Guinea was actually inadequately iodized—meaning that it did not contain enough iodine to prevent MND.

Humanitarian organizations throughout the world know that this is an issue and some solutions have been proposed. UNICEF has created MND packets that they distribute with food. They also advocate for universal food fortification.

Unfortunately, without better and more open data, many people will continue to be affected by MND worldwide. The Sustainable Development Goals seek “more and better data,” but without open standards and a philosophy of sharing, we will miss the opportunity to provide policymakers and administrators with good data for decision making. .

And this does not just apply to Micronutrient Deficiency. Good data and accountable leadership are necessary to make progress on preventing disability where possible and giving people with disabilities their dignity.