Mapping Illness: When Immunization and Open Data Intersect

February 12, 2015 12:57 pm PST | Effective Governing

Immunization issues are breaking across news outlets and social media. High-level official responses, from the CDC to the United States Senate, are chasing the racing public conversation about vaccination, measles outbreaks, and related concerns. In King County, WA, public health officials are richly complementing this network of discussions by delivering open data on immunization rates, via data visualization technology powered by Socrata.

Using searchable, clickable maps, King County shows citizens 24/7 the countywide immunization rates at all schools, public and private. “Our primary mission is to make data available to medical practitioners and the public,” explains Libby Page, Program Manager, Public Health – Seattle & King County’s Immunization Assessment & Promotion Program. “Individual school immunization assessment reports come to us from the Washington State Department of Public Health. Historically we haven’t done much with this information, except to monitor immunization coverage and exemption rates over time and identify trends. This is our first attempt to make this information available to the public in a user-friendly way.”

The response has been phenomenal, with more than 14,000 hits to the map since the immunization issues became a hot button topic in 2014. “Our communications team promoted the availability of the maps to the media the Public Health Blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Some of us are getting calls and emails from parents who have seen the maps and are saying, ‘OK, what can I do about the low vaccination rates at my child’s school? Who can I contact?’”

In response, King County posted a, “What can I do about low immunization levels at my child’s school or childcare facility,” section, building a government-public partnership around the agency’s public health goals, and maximizing the program’s outreach. As Page notes, “That was really our hope – that the information would be accessible to people, and that for some that might be enough for them to want to take some action.” For example, for parents who view the maps and learn that those around them aren’t fully vaccinated, the maps, “will help you know how to protect yourself and your family, and if you’re interested and want to be more vocal, here are ways to put positive messages on your twitter feeds and Facebook accounts,” Page explains.

Efficiencies of Open Data

Public health officials supply their data to a myriad of audiences, and they collaborate across health agencies as they strategize on how best to inform and serve communities.

Growing use of data visualization technology can help governments share data efficiently across jurisdictions. Instead of spinning cycles gathering data from each other, public-health workers from different agencies in different areas can devote more of their collaborative time to assessing how best to serve communities. Program staff like Page and her colleagues at King County can spend less time sharing, and re-sharing, their data on every call – because tools like their interactive immunization map will have already put the data at everyone’s fingertips. The efficiency benefit can extend to journalists and analysts, who can access open data vehicles like the immunization maps, and focus their contact time with public health officials on understanding policy and researching government’s plans and programs.

Data Visualization Increases Access

The interactive map can be accessed online anytime, making it available to all: hospital clinicians working weekend shifts, community health workers researching area trends, and families in other time zones who include immunization rates in their decision-making for schools and housing. The visual aspect of the technology may also prove to be another item in King County’s toolbox for moving beyond language barriers. Page emphasizes, “Our goal is to make the information accessible to everyone; you’ll find that when we have text-heavy materials, as a matter of routine we have those translated into all of the tier-one languages in King County; it’s a priority to make all the information accessible. This is our first attempt to use data visualization.”

Looking Ahead in King County

“I feel like I’ve caught the data visualization bug now; I’m thinking about other immunization-related information we could potentially post on our website,” says Page. “I’m definitely open to exploring what all the possibilities are. For example, our Vaccines for Children program is responsible for distributing all the childhood vaccines in King County; now I’m thinking maybe we should have a map showing where all the clinics that offer them are located. I’m feeling like publishing this map is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are so many more possibilities.”


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