Can we use Big Data to improve health reporting?

Our project:

Ali and I built a tool that uses Big Data to help journalists who report on health see how their coverage of a subject (ie., diabetes) stacks up next to what actually kills people and the related research dollars invested. The idea was that the tool could give journalists a sense of whether they are covering health issues that actually affect their readers and also whether there are topics with lots of research being done that they might be under-covering.

Using the tool:

As a health journalist, I was interested in trying out the tool and seeing whether it could give me a sense of missed opportunities in my reporting or ways to improve  coverage.

For this demo, we used New York Times and Wall Street Journal data. I looked at the 2011 visualization for the New York Times, and imagined I was a journalist working at that paper. I found that while heart disease kills a lot of Americans, I was hardly covering it. Meanwhile, I was dedicating a great deal of ink to Parkinson’s disease, even though relatively few Americans are afflicted. Similarly, few die by suicide, yet it received the maximum media attention at my paper, while accidents—which kill many more people—got hardly any coverage. Chronic lower respiratory disease and stroke are both major killers in America that attract a sizable amount of research funding, yet we barely reported on these health subjects.

These gaps between mortality and media attention left me with ideas about how I might be able to diversify and strengthen my health journalism. It allowed me to reflect on where my focus was, and where my blind spots might be. I’d think about doing stories on accidents and heart disease, for example, and looking into possibilities for reporting on COPD, which got no coverage.

Still, this is just a demo with a lot of room for improvement.

Future directions:

1) We want to use DALYs data instead of mortality as our population health measure. DALYs—disability-adjusted life years—are a measure of overall disease burden that measure the number of life years lost due to poor health. They include a range of factors such as smoking, diet, pollution, cancer, depression and asthma. So DALYs would encompass a broader scope of health and lifestyle issues than the mortality measure.

2) We want to add other media outlets from around the world to the tool, and create a feature that allows users to upload data from their own websites to see how they compare.

3) We need to improve our user interface so that the information is displayed on one screen and there is no need to scroll down.

4) We want to build our database so users can compare media attention over a longer period of time and see how their focus is shifting over the years.

5) We need to make sure we are comparing apples to apples. On almost every measure, the Wall Street Journal appeared to have almost zero coverage next to the New York Times and we need to explore why this is happening.

6) We included measures health researchers might be interested in. For example, the ratio of research investment to mortality in the population. We hope to work with health researchers to ensure our methodology is robust enough, and invite them to use our tool for their studies.

20 thoughts on “Can we use Big Data to improve health reporting?

  1. I thought this was a really terrific first step in producing a helpful tool, at least for media critics and health reporters. (As Matt Carroll pointed out in the demo session, it’s useful to people analyzing media and somewhat helpful to reporters, and could be useful to newsrooms, if they chose to use it.) Being able to quickly compare attention, funding and mortality strikes me as a very powerful capability, and one we might think about in other fields as well. (For instance, disaster, crisis and humanitarian reporting, which might want to consider the relationship between attention, relief funding and mortality from the crisis.)

    I’ll be very interested to see how DALYs changes the visualization. I note that diabetes has the most research per death – that may be because many people live 50-60 years with the disease (I’m 30 years in, myself) and therefore would be better represented by DALY than by mortality. I also think there’s an unstated factor worth exploring, which is novelty. Is chronic lower respiratory disease simply low attention because it hasn’t been well marketed, or is there something else at work, perhaps a lack of research progress?

    That leads to another idea, which might be finding a way to quantify how much money is spent to market a disease – is cancer so visible because of the breast cancer industrial complex? Is this another factor we could quantify and analyze? At some point, it will make sense to put these different variables on a graph and look for correlations.

    One way or another, the project raises some great questions, some of which could lead to excellent stories. I hope the project will move forward and that we’ll see some of those questions answered in the press, by the two of you or by others.

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