Using Data to Create Healthcare Narratives

I mentioned in a previous post that “important stories live in our data”.

Particularly in healthcare where tons of data abound.

The problem is that healthcare is not producing enough good stories to support decision-making in the industry.

Instead what we have is an explosion of reports, spreadsheets, charts and tables such as this:

For most people this kind of data is useless and invites lots of questions: What is this? What is happening? Why? What do we do with it?

But if you can translate it into a narrative or make it visual so that people are able to understand it then it becomes useful. Even physicians and decision-makers in the industry could use easier ways to understand this kind of data.

Something like this infographic below makes more sense (not related to above data-set):

Use visualizations not data to communicate important messages

This infographic provides a clear narrative about childhood injuries. The information is easily understandable, usable and actionable. There is no danger of jumping to the wrong conclusion.

But healthcare organizations continue to produce a ton of data hoping to glean meaningful insights that will help their decision making. Even when their own employees don’t have the skills to translate the data. Hence mountains of data heap up without a clear direction as to how it can be used.

Data Democratization

I don’t think you have to be a data scientist to handle data. Technologies such as Google Fusion, Adobe Illustrator, Tableau and others are empowering all kinds of people to interpret data and present it to others.

In fact I recently enrolled in the Knight Center of Journalism’s second massive open online course (MOOP), ‘Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.’ The course is taught by Prof. Alberto Cairo, author of ‘The Functional Art.’ We’re learning how to create data visualizations and to discover hidden stories from data.

This week for example I learned a simple approach to storytelling through data from Andy Kirk’s book, Data Visualization: A Success Design Process (A great resource for data enthusiasts!). Here’s the outline:

#1. Scan the data

Let’s say you’re presented with the following table of data (click to enlarge) and are asked to create a story for your audience. The table is titled, ‘Frequencies of Circulatory Diseases Among the U.S. Adult Population’:

The first thing you would do is to scan it with your eyes and see if anything interesting stands out. For example I see that hypertension is the most common type of circulatory disease in the United States.

#2. Examine the data

Next try to become more familiar with the data by examining some descriptive and statistical elements. For example there are two main variables in the table above. One for Selected Demographic and the second for Frequency of Selected disease. Also there are four demographic categories – age, gender, ethnic group and level of education. This exercise helps you to see important attributes in the data.

#3. Contextualize the subject matter

Prepare the data in a way that gives more insight. For example you could find some co-relations and do some calculations to produce percentages of frequency. In this case you discover that 25% of U.S. adults suffer from hypertension. At this point you may (or may not) start to sense the beginnings of a story.

#4. Develop editorial focus

To start shaping the story ask yourself some basic questions about the data. ‘What initially crossed my mind when I first saw the data? What kind of trends or patterns do I see? What kind of analysis might be relevant to my audience? Let your imagination roam and seek ideas that will make your content more interesting.

#5. Find a visual representation

Next you will need to focus on a data visualization that will answer these questions. It could be a bar chart, a bubble map or an infographic like the one above. The key thing is to create a visual from which the audience can perceive a story easily, efficiently and accurately.

Quick Wrap-up

No body wants to waste time pouring over meaningless data.

Time is money and (healthcare) decision makers have little of it. For them insights gained from data are more beneficial than the data itself. I believe they should explore available technologies (such as those mentioned above) to empower their employees to work with data. I know that stories resonate and visuals stick. This is one way to turn all that complex data into something people can use to make important decisions.

Your Turn: How is your organization using data to help fuel decision making? Are you first translating it into narrative form? Please share your views in the comment box below.

Data-Driven Storytelling: 6 Steps to a Credible Story

Compelling stories live in our data. But you wouldn’t know it by the way brands treat it

In a recent article published on Content Marketing Institute, Colleen Jones asked the question, “Can digital branded content ever be taken seriously — even as seriously as journalism?”

Without a doubt journalism has had a huge head start when it comes to creating stories that capture hearts and minds. Part of that success comes from using research data (polls, surveys and feedback) to understand what readers find valuable, particularly as it relates to the issues and problems they face.

Do content marketers have the same research opportunities? Of course they do. In fact, if more content marketers were to use publicly available data the way journalists do then branded content would offer new angles, insights, and more value to stories that affect people’s lives.

But the good news, as Colleen explains, is that, “Americans are quite open to brands being credible sources of web content.” One way for brands to increase content credibility is to introduce trustworthy third-party data as part of their stories. Credible stories are rooted in something that’s real, not just your ideas. So for example data, research and numbers can be the foundation of the story, while your ideas and opinions add perspective to the story.

Currently, there are mountains of data available, on the internet and elsewhere, that organizations can use to develop credible stories that are infused with insight, relevance, and inspiration. So how can your brand learn to create data-driven stories? Here is a six-point process for brand storytelling that you can use to get started:

#1. Keep your audience top of mind

Great data-driven stories start with great questions — specifically, questions that are relevant to your audience and customers, such as what are their nagging questions, or what are their greatest business challenges? If the questions you come up with have quantifiable dimension, chances are they will make for a good data-driven story.

For example, let’s say you’re in the health care space, and you know your audience is concerned with finding accurate, reliable health information online. One story you can consider creating would be a piece on how patients use online health care records in your city, and how often they access this information. The specific question your content might address here would look like this: “Why consumer demand of health IT outstrips supply.”

#2. Find the data

Once you have defined a question on which to base your content, you need to determine the available data records you can incorporate to answer that question. To do this, you will need to think about the process you will use to collect, filter, and visualize data in order to create deeper insights that will inform your story.

Collect: At first when you’re looking for data on a particular topic or issue, you may not know where to look, or if that data even exists.

However, if the problem has a measurable component, there’s a good chance of finding adequate data (on the internet) to generate an insightful answer. Finding adequate data to support your answer is important because you don’t want to jump into a data-driven story that cannot be executed.

Using the health care example above, you would need to find data that shows how many patients have asked for their health records online, how many doctors or facilities have the technology to furnish such requests, how many have actually done so, etc. Here are some good places to start looking for this data:

#3. Vet your data source, and filter your findings

Don’t forget that the goal of using data is to increase your content’s cr and to validate your brand’s storytelling. That said, make sure that the source of your data is also credible. Use sources that are reputable and well known for research data; for example, Forrester Research and Pew Research.

Generally speaking, academic journals, university sites, studies, and research reports from professional institutes are good sources of data, while most blogs (unless they’re very authoritative) are not.

Filtering data is like interviewing a real source. You ask specific questions in order to get the answers you’re looking for. Same thing with data — what question do you want the data to answer?

Let’s say you’re writing a story about hospital closures in your county. The data-backed statements you will make will involve the number of hospitals registered, how much it costs to keep them running, sources of funding including how many people with health insurance, etc. So the minimum data you would need to filter is number of hospitals, cost, revenue, number of insured, etc.

#4. Choose a visualualization

Our attention-deficient generation gravitates toward visual content. So once you have found adequate data, and have determined which of the available data will best address your initial question and strengthen your story, you then have to think about how you will represent it visually for your audience’s consumption. For example, bar charts, pie charts, infographics, and mappings are all simple methods of data visualization, so you will need to decide which format will work best for the data you are using.

For example, check out this innovative visual from GE Healthcare, which captures ”Who’s talking about breast cancer” on Twitter.

Remember that the more interesting the visualization, the more time and attention consumers will give it. Be sure to keep your visualizations simple — you don’t want to make your audience have to work hard to figure what your graph is all about. Try several different visuals and see what appeals to your audience, then stick with that format.

You can go online and check out various free visualization tools that enable storytelling with data, such as, and others.

#5. Shape the story

Using data is about adding as much value to your content as possible. It’s about saying something that hasn’t been said before. As you begin to shape your story, try to use an original approach and be sure to add a unique and meaningful perspective.

More often than not, a successful data-driven story will require the collaboration of analytical-types (to gather, analyze, filter and visualize data) and creative types to unearth a compelling story that’s just waiting to be told.

#6. Get some feedback before launching

When you’re finished, show your story to an outsider who has absolutely no connection to the project. Ask them what they think. Does it make sense? Is it interesting, or just confusing? Take that constructive feedback and use it to peel away the layers that don’t add value to the story.

You may have to simplify the data or the visual, or find different words to tell the story (or, God-forbid, all of the above!). This may take more time, but it’s important — it could mean winning the hearts and minds of your audience, or losing them altogether.

Over to you: Has your organization experimented with data-driven stories? How did you approach the project? Please share your ideas in the comment box below

Millennials, Brands and Digital Content [Infographic]

Jay (not real name) is a 26-year old grad student from Chicago. He is single, is active on Facebook, Twitter and His favorite websites, newspapers, magazines or TV shows are: The Economist, The Onion,,, and Dexter.

Jay has this advice for companies who want to truly reach him and his friends:

“Take time to engage with us. Don’t just push your message, but listen as well. Social media networks make this very easy for you but they’re often misused or underused by companies like yours. Prompt a response, a discussion and relate your company to someone’s life. Don’t be afraid to step outside your specific product and go for the bigger message to which we can relate and participate.”

Millennial conusmers a.k.a. digital natives, are fast becoming a very influential group of consumers. Brands like yours can no longer afford to ignore them.

We created this infographic (information sourced from Edelman/StrategyOne) to give you a better understanding of millenial consumers like Jay and to illustrate their relationship with other millennials, with business brands and with digital content:

Over to you: What steps are you taking to engage with millennial consumers like Jay?

How to Avoid A Social Media Crisis [Infographic]

Social media crises are on the rise.

Ever since United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar in July 2009, thousands of companies whose negative actions were amplified by social media have paid the price in terms of public humiliation, loss of good reputation and in some cases financial loss.

According to Jeremiah Owyang’s, Social Business Readiness Report  (August 2011) 76% of these crises could have been avoided or diminished if only companies made some internal investment in social media planning and preparedness.

To learn from where others have failed, he suggests that companies should follow the Social Business Hierarchy of Needs. This infographic captures the most salient points of his case. Download the full report by clicking on this link.

Over to you: What is your organization doing to prepare and plan for a potential social media crisis?