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Good data visualizations are worth 1,000 words…

August 30, 2022

Principle 5 guides states and localities to create a fair and transparent process for opioid litigation spending. We asked data expert and the Senior Technical Advisor for Drug Use Epidemiology and Data at Vital Strategies, Eric Hulsey, DrPH, about one method states are taking to learn more about the importance of transparency: Data Dashboards. 

What exactly is a data dashboard?

A data dashboard can mean different things to different audiences. To a public health agency, it may be a way to share surveillance information with the public. To a local or state government official, it can be a tool to display information to the public as a way to stave off FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. Many of us in recent years have explored COVID-19 dashboards to learn about rates of confirmed cases in our communities, which groups have experienced the highest burden of illness, and even locations where one might find testing or vaccination resources. To community organizations, dashboards might be a source of information to help them plan programs or develop rationales to pitch to funders for support for that programming.

When creating public-facing dashboards, considering these different uses by different stakeholders can help inform the purposes for a dashboard.

Speaking of considerations, what are some other things states and local leaders should know when deciding how to create and use a dashboard?

First and foremost, I would suggest that leaders start at the end and first think about what they are hoping to accomplish. Exercises like the crystal ball technique, where a group imagines the future once the dashboard is launched could help the group imagine what the end-users might be doing with it and develop a clearer vision for the resource. This vision could then help translate to what is or isn’t possible given existing data assets or inform what policy decisions may need to be made to make a particular visualization possible.

Next, evaluate what is most important or relevant to include in the dashboard. In my experience engaging leaders in designing dashboards, there is often a desire to include every available data point. Doing so–whether through including many visualizations on a single tab or many tabs in a single dashboard–often leads to a “busy” dashboard that quickly becomes overwhelming.

Finally, leaders might consider some of the operational mechanics of the dashboard, including who “owns” the dashboard, who is responsible for updating it, and how often this should occur. Sometimes, there might be different owners of the data sources used to generate the dashboard so developing the relationships and responsibilities for each of these stakeholders could be something to clarify at the outset of planning.

How can data dashboards be used in relation to the litigation dollars?

Dashboards can be used as a tool for transparency, planning, monitoring, and performance related to opioid settlement funds.

Whether it is a state department of health and human services, state attorney general’s office, or county-level administration that is managing settlement funds, communicating where and to whom the funds were invested is critical to achieving transparency. A dashboard can communicate how much a state office or county received and how much was invested in local programming over a certain period of time. This can be updated rapidly and designed so that end-users can interact with visualizations and explore basic questions about accountability on their own.

Dashboards have often been used for planning purposes and they can serve the same role with regard to settlement funds. Many of us have explored national or local dashboards to understand changes in overdoses over time, where they have increased, or what drugs were involved in fatal overdoses. Fewer dashboards include information about sex, age and race but those that do help us understand which groups have been disproportionally affected by overdoses and from which substances. Regardless, dashboards that make this information available help government and community stakeholders plan for intervention approaches and where to invest limited resources.

Leaders may want to use a dashboard to more easily monitor where funding has been invested and what is being accomplished with those funds. Imagine a map of a county or state with a bunch of color-coded dots representing types of interventions. Imagine hovering over one of those dots to learn about an organization that is implementing a particular type of intervention, how much they received, a description of their project, information about the project lead, and contact information. That could help another community that is thinking about replicating what is happening in a different region connect with representatives who have experience. There could even be an online system developed to allow grantees to report this kind of information and dashboards connected to the ‘back-end” for databases of those systems so that this information can update the dashboard nearly instantly. For the stewards of settlement funds, this could be a way to demonstrate to the public that they are closely monitoring the use of these funds and that their use falls within the accepted abatement strategies written into the settlement agreements.

Performance is sometimes tricky to communicate but things like how many events they have conducted and how many people have participated are basic measures of performance and what was accomplished with the funds an organization received. This can also demonstrate an increase in effective interventions or the increase in people exposed to those interventions over time.

What examples of existing data dashboards would you highlight?

While many states and counties are diligently planning around settlement funds it seems a little early to find many examples of dashboards related to settlement funds. That said, North Carolina provides a good example of transparency with regard to the schedule of estimated payments to state and county governments in their dashboard (here). Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and the state of Michigan provide good examples of overdose surveillance dashboards (here and here).

Other states and counties have dedicated websites related to the settlement and may be laying the groundwork for creating a platform to track litigation spending: Florida, Wisconsin, and Oregon. These dedicated sites may be useful tools, but other localities may consider integrated settlement spending and tracking into their existing dashboard.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the audience?

I would emphasize that dashboard development works best when it is intentional or purposeful. Try to avoid letting the tail wag the dog, that is, by attempting to visualize every bit of data that happens to be available on-hand. It is ok to have the vision for an important visualization or dashboard while still working to secure access to the necessary data.

Another thing is to consider helping the audience understand what some of the major trends indicate. A brief statement interpreting the data visualization can make a dashboard even more user-friendly.

Finally, having a little empathy for the dashboard development team that is trying to actualize the leaders’ vision can go a long way to building a productive long-term working relationship. It ain’t easy to translate a vision for a dashboard into acceptable decisions around filtering, visualization and general design. Keeping an eye on the prize and recognizing we’re all in it together can keep folks grounded and focused on what is important – getting folks information that can help the collective effort in using these funds to save lives!