Data visualization and dashboards

By | May 2, 2011

A wise colleague of mine once told me that lots of people collect data, but few people know what to do with it. I didn’t understand what he was talking about at the time, but I’ve come to have a better understanding over the years. It basically boils down to the difficulty that many of us experience when it comes to the best way to handle information. Our brains do some amazing things, but fail to “see” things when the perspective is all wrong.

Data surrounds us. It’s in everything we do, from the bank statements we receive in our personal life to the mountains of data collected by every healthcare institution. Regardless of the data collected, there are basically three things that can be done with it. Data can be ignored, it can be archived or it can be used. Unfortunately only one of those three things is truly useful; using it. Many people chose to ignore or archive data not because the information isn’t valuable, but because they are overwhelmed with the amount of information they receive and the way that the information is presented.

Presentation is everything when it comes to data. The methods we chose to present information can make the difference between the information being useful or being useless. The significance of such a problem creates a quagmire for pharmacists as theirs is a data driven environment. Pharmacists spend a great amount of time emerged in data; patient data, lab data, micro data, kinetics data, drug data, usage data, nursing data, physician data, and so on.

Data visualization and dashboards can help. They provide us with the tools to better understand the information around us, and therefore improve efficiency in the process.

Data visualization
Acording to an article by Michael Friendly in 2008 (1) data visualization is “information which has been abstracted in some schematic form, including attributes or variables for the units of information”. In other words it’s data that’s put on display in a format that’s easier for the end user to understand, i.e. the use of an image to represent tables full of data.

It’s difficult to conceptualize the benefits of data visualization until you see it in action. This was recently demonstrated to me at the unSUMMIT in the form of a poster on data visualization by Charles Boicey, MS,RN-BC, PMP, Informatics Solutions Architect from the University of California, Irvine Medical Center. The poster demonstrated the value of data visualization by utilizing several different methods to present information collected from bar-code medication administration (BCMA) override scans. The information was displayed in table format along with various types of graphs and images. The tabular information was virtually useless as it was difficult to wade through the data and make sense of it. However, the visual representation of the data created a much more powerful statement that made the data easier to understand.

According to Vitaly Friedman (2) the “main goal of data visualization is to communicate information clearly and effectively through graphical means”. While the concept is simple, the application is more difficult and requires a keen eye and the ability to think in abstract ways. If you can get it right, it’s powerful stuff.

Dashboards take data visualization one step further by aggregating several different pieces of visual information in a single location. Think of it as an information control panel where the end user controls what information is gathered and how it’s presented. A simple search for “dashboards” in Google Images reveals several excellent examples.

Even though the concepts are useful and commonly used in business applications, the use of data visualization and dashboards remain relatively uncommon in healthcare, which is unfortunate because they could go a long way in helping pharmacists understand what’s really going on around them.

(1) Michael Friendly (2008). “Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization

(2) Vitaly Friedman (2008) “Data Visualization and Infographics” in: Graphics, Monday Inspiration, January 14th, 2008

One thought on “Data visualization and dashboards

  1. Kel Mohror

    Data viz and dashboards are essential in making PHRs a useful (and used) tool for individuals and patients. The data they collect on A1C, BP, heart rate, calorie and other intakes, and the like can be meshed with time of day, exercise durations, in a viz or dashboard for immediate understanding. With understanding comes compliance, be it medication or other therapy. Viz and/or dashboards in PHRs that access risk calculators regarding Risk of “Heart Attack and Stroke” ( could enable even greater patient engagement.

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