The author is a senior program officer at the California HealthCare Foundation, which is based in Oakland.

Harnessing meaningful information from the array of health datasets that exist shouldn’t be like digging for gold, but for many California counties, that’s what the experience resembles.

That, at least, is the takeaway from interviews with county supervisors and health department directors that i.e. communications, a policy advocacy and media consulting firm, conducted on behalf of the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) earlier this year.

We wanted to understand better how health data, such as data on disease prevalence, use of health care services, or the quality of care, are used to support local policy making in California’s fifty-eight counties, which not only vary greatly in size, but in their capability to harvest data.

Here are two representative comments:

“We have lots of data. I would rather have less data in a more organized, distilled fashion,” said one county supervisor in California.

“My gut response is counties are drowning in raw data and most [health] policy decisions are not being made based on data at all,” said a county director of health services.

Data Rich, Data Poor

Although “information angst” has become an unfortunate byproduct of our data revolution, something more systemic is at play: Only a limited number of counties have the resources and know-how to corral health data into useful information.

A “data-rich” county, for example, has staff that know how to navigate the thicket of federal, state, and local data sources. Once they obtain the data they need, they have the capability to analyze the data and may even be able to create meaningful graphs and maps that succinctly summarize an issue for an elected official.  

To be sure, these “data-rich” counties face daunting challenges. The process of finding, analyzing, and visualizing data can take much time. And sometimes, the kinds of publicly available data that elected officials need to support policy making are too old to be useful or are not available at a granular-enough level—for example, by city or zip code.

In contrast, a “data-poor” county—and these counties surely are in the majority in California (and perhaps nationally, too)—faces deeper problems. It’s as if this data revolution that’s transformed so many other aspects of our work and lives—from obtaining transit data about the arrival of the next bus to personal sensors that provide up-to-the-minute fitness results—has bypassed the county supervisor.

For a data-poor county, the problem begins with finding the data. This county may have staff that work across numerous domains (one staffer may be assigned to work in education, health, and human services, for example), and they may not know where to look among the hundreds of federal, state, and local data sources to find pertinent health data. Even when they find data to support a given policy consideration, the data may be available in “raw” formats that can be difficult to unlock.

It’s no easy task to create meaning from a spreadsheet. Analyzing the data and then visually presenting the results in engaging, useful ways takes time, which is in short supply in counties still devastated by budget cuts. As a result, the county supervisor in a data-poor county may be left flying blind when it comes to making key decisions.

No question, we need better health data to support decision making. But our interviews illuminated how much could be done now to help level the playing field if we could only provide better access to already available data, then find ways to help translate these data into “actionable” information for local elected officials.

Even this is a tall order, of course, which is why CHCF is partnering with the Knight Foundation and others, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Clinton Foundation, on the Knight News Challenge, a twice-yearly competition to develop breakthrough ideas in news and information delivery.

Big Data on a Local Scale

This fall, the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge focuses on health—more specifically on how data and information can be better leveraged to improve the health of communities. Knight has committed $2 million, and CHCF is bolstering that with $100,000 in awards. The intent of CHCF funding is to help answer a question critical to the issues facing a “data-poor” county:

How do we get health data into the hands of city and county officials and get them to use that information to improve people’s lives?

Ours is one part of a larger set of questions. Knight asks, “How can we harness health data and information for the health of communities,” and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is offering $100,000 for projects that “best combine public health data and health care data to improve the health of communities.”

Although CHCF’s work is focused on California, we’re casting a broad net for our challenge question above, in the rich tradition of the Knight News Challenge, with the hopes of attracting an array of ideas for how to access, analyze, package, and visualize the vast amount of data that can be tapped. Ideas must be usable in California but can be applicable to another state or states.

The Knight News Challenge: Health began in August, and submissions are being accepted through September 17 (5 p.m. EDT). There’s more information about how to submit a proposal to the Knight News Challenge (it’s the same submission process for all three questions noted above), as well as further details about CHCF’s aim through this challenge to better integrate data into local health policy making.

In the coming months, we will sift through what we expect will be a range of great ideas. The goal is to help turn “buried treasure” into an everyday commodity for local elected officials whose decisions affect all of us. Winners will be announced in early 2014.

This blog post is adapted from a post the author wrote for the Knight Foundation’s Knight Blog. Published on August 19, that post was titled “California HealthCare Foundation: The Data Stops Here.”

Related resources:

Read about the winners of the Knight Foundation’s most recent News Challenge (on open government) here:

Read “Freeing the Data: A Revolution to Improve Health Care,” by Sandra Shewry, director of state health policy at the California HealthCare Foundation, Health Affairs GrantWatch Blog, December 15, 2011.