What Do Public Health Officials Want From Big Data?

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One of the central themes of the fifth annual Health Datapalooza conference in Washington, DC was how innovative approaches to data can help local public health agencies better target their limited resources.

Two panels of public health experts described some creative solutions they have developed to work around the fact that data coming from federal and state sources is often years old and not geographically meaningful enough.

Brian Castrucci, program director for the de Beaumont Foundation, which seeks to catalyze new thinking about public health innovation, said his organization has surveyed local public health officials in 18 cities and found a strong desire for more local data. “They need neighborhood-level data to inform policy,” he said. “It has to have the right level of geographic aggregation.” The data they get now to help target chronic conditions such as diabetes is not granular enough, he added. It doesn’t help them to have state-level data that is two years old.

Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said one of the biggest issues for her department right now is dealing with an opioid overdose epidemic. “The data we get from the state is three years old, and from the medical examiner confirming deaths is two years old,” she said. “I am looking for real-time data. We need it to influence programming dollars.” She added that there isn’t agreement on the need of public health departments at the local level having good access to data.

There is no reason those electronic media record feeds couldn’t happen simultaneously if there is agreement on which data should be sent where. “It is wasteful but better than no data access at all,” she said, “or waiting for others to decide when we are going to get access.”

What Do Public Health Officials Want From Big Data?