The History and Future of Disease Analysis and Visualization

The History and Future of Disease Analysis and Visualization

While recently attending the ODI Summit Discovery Day in London, I had the opportunity to hear from Max Van Kleek about the broad possibilities of data visualization. He shared many examples of effective infographics and visualizations. Max explained that data analysis and visualization is used most often to do one of two things: to solve problem, or to communicate complex idea in a simple manner.

In public health, these two purposes of data visualization are invaluable for epidemiologists to understand and track dangerous disease outbreaks. For example, in seeking to understand the Cholera outbreak in 1854 Soho neighborhood in London, physician John Snow (1813-1858) conducted a geographic survey of the locations of Cholera deaths. Through his analysis he found that the outbreak was not airborne, as commonly thought, but linked to a contaminated water source. Once he was able to use his analysis to convince the community of the source of the outbreak, the handle of the contaminated pump was removed, preventing further spread of the disease. The analysis John Snow conducted is commonly believed to be the first ever use of geographic analysis to understand and solve a complex problem. While in London at the Summit, I visited the site of the pump which was once the cause of hundreds of deaths, but now serves as a symbol of how data driven analysis helps us solve health problems and save lives.

The second important purpose of data analysis and visualization in Public Health is to advocate and communicate effectively with a wide audience. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) used patient data and a visualization of causes of mortality to prove that significantly more soldiers during the Crimean War were suffering from diseases related to contamination in hospitals than from actual war injuries. This advocacy helped to improve hospital conditions and encourage sanitary practices in medical facilities, which subsequently saved millions of lives. Nightingale’s effective data driven communication of this serious public health concern was integral in changing policy.

Historical uses of public health mapping have paved the way for methods used by epidemiologists today. At a recent GeoPhilly Meetup about the confluence of spatial analysis and Public Health, local researchers shared how they use these tools in various public health applications. For instance, Joan Bloch, PhD, CRNP at Drexel shared her public health work using geographic tracking. By mapping the time and cost of transportation,  she was able to demonstrate the challenges low-income women face finding transportation to maternity-related care visits. This research is used to advocate for more thoughtful distribution of services to encourage better utilization of these key resources. Joan is presenting her work at the upcoming American Health Planning Association conference this month in New Orleans.

As analytical tools continue to evolve, spatial analysis and visualization will become even more valuable in understanding and tracking epidemic outbreaks like the current spread of Ebola in West Africa. Researchers are already charting the rate of disease spread geographically to determine how to best plan their health resources to limit future cases. With the increased use of GPS-enabled devices to record health data, the importance of using spatial analysis and visualization will become even more vital in fighting disease and promoting a healthier society.