Tools to Visualize Local Health Data

Have you ever wondered which issues have the biggest impact on public health in your community, or how your county’s public health ranks in comparison to other counties in your state?  Here are two helpful tools for visualizing and comparing county-level health data, found through the list of County and Local Health Data tools at (I originally learned about these tools through the free NNLM class Health and Wellness @ the Library: The Essentials of Providing Consumer Health Services).

CHSI 2015

CHSI 2015 (created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) describes itself as “an interactive web application that produces health profiles for all 3,143 counties in the United States.”  Select a state and county to view an “at-a-glance” summary (under the “Summary Comparison Report” section) on “how the selected county compares with peer counties” (better, moderate or worse) “on the full set of Primary Indicators” (arranged under categories Mortality, Morbidity, Healthcare Access and Quality, Health Behaviors, Social Factors, and Physical Environment).

The Summary Comparison Report for Montgomery County, MD at CHSI 2015.

CHSI 2015 also allows you to view county demographics data and county-level data for specific Primary Indicators.  For instance, the age adjusted Alzheimer’s disease death rate for Montgomery County, MD is 13.3 per 100,000 residents, while the US median rate is 27.3.

Data on Alzheimer’s disease death rate for Montgomery County, MD at CHSI 2015.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (created by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and University of Wisconsin) measure “the health of nearly all counties in the nation and rank them within states” using “county-level measures from a variety of national and state data sources.”  Check their Our Approach page for more information on their data sources and ranking methods.

Try searching by state from the County Health Rankings homepage, and then choose a county to view the Rankings data for the county (compared against overall state-level data and its ranking compared to other counties in the state)  under categories including Health Outcomes (Length of Life and Quality of Life) and Health Factors (Health Behaviors, Clinical Care, Social and Economic Factors, and Physical Environment).  Choose the “Show areas of strength” checkbox at the top of the screen to highlight public health factors where the county has a strong ranking, or choose “Show areas to explore” to highlight categories where the county has a weaker ranking.

Viewing County Health Rankings data for Montgomery County, MD.

Choose the “Compare Counties” option to create charts comparing the public health data of two or more counties (including counties in different states).  For instance, the screenshot below shows a chart comparing County Health Rankings data for Calvert, MD, Fairfax, VA, and Montgomery, MD.

Comparing County Health Rankings data for three different counties.

I also want to highlight a website specifically for my local county (Montgomery County, Maryland) called Healthy Montgomery, which allows users to create customized health dashboards for their local zip code.

From the Healthy Montgomery homepage, choose the Community Health Dashboards option under the Find Data drop-down menu.  You can then choose to view county health dashboards based on a variety of health indicator measurements (like Healthy People 2020 or Maryland SHIP 2017).  You can also build a custom dashboard and filter to view only specific indicators, view data for a specific location (zip codes within Montgomery County), filter by comparisons (like Healthy People 2020 or Maryland SHIP), filter by subgroups (like age, gender, or race), or filter by data source.

The dashboards include helpful icons beside measurement data to indicate if the measurement is higher or lower than county/US average, or if the measurement has an upwards or downwards trend when compared to prior values.

Customized dashboard from Healthy Montgomery for Silver Spring, MD (zip code 20910).

While the county-level health data tools like CHSI 2015 and County Health Rankings are useful for getting a general idea about public health in larger communities, I hope all counties will eventually have websites like Healthy Montgomery available to view health status (and local health disparities) at a more granular, neighborhood-based level.

Learning Tableau

Creating interactive visualizations of data to tell a story is a great skill to have, but what if you don’t have programming skills?  I fall in the non-programmer boat (although hopefully I can fix that knowledge gap this year by learning R), but fortunately there are a ton of free online visualization tools, many of which don’t require programming knowledge.  Tableau is one option for creating free or low-cost interactive visualizations of large data sets using a drag-and-drop interface.

What is Tableau?

Tableau is data visualization software that includes both subscription and free versions.  The free version of the software is called Tableau Public.  Through Tableau Public, users can download the Tableau Desktop Public Edition app, upload and clean data, create visualizations, and then save and store visualizations (called “vizzes”) to your Tableau Public Profile.  You get 10GB of space in your Public Profile, and vizzes can be shared and embedded on websites and blogs.

How Can Libraries Use Tableau?

A quick search of Tableau Public shows some academic libraries using Tableau to create dashboards of library usage statistics (see Library Assessment for UMass Amherst Libraries or LibraryViz@OSU for Ohio State University Libraries).  Public libraries (like Brooklyn Public Libraries) may use a subscription version of the tool for indepth usage analytics and decision making.

Getting Started

For my first Tableau visualization, I decided to use a relatively large data set downloaded from PillBox.  PillBox is a database from the National Library of Medicine and can be used to identify unknown pills and capsules by visual indicators like color, shape, and size.  I wanted to explore the pill shapes, colors, and distributors for pills containing the active ingredient Acetaminophen.

My first (rather rough) attempt at a Tableau visualization can be found here.

Visit the full visualization.

I mostly just figured out how to use the interface through trial and error and Googling any questions I had about the tool (there’s a large and active user base for the software, thankfully).  The Tableau website also offers some basic tutorial videos.

A few random thoughts:

  • I had trouble using Tableau Desktop Public Edition app on my Dell, since the Dell Backup and Recovery program interfered with the app.  I had to uninstall Dell Backup and Recovery to get Tableau to work.
  • Now that Google has gotten in the data visualization game with Google Data Studio, Tableau better up it’s game.  Here’s a comparison of Google Data Studio and Tableau I found interesting.