Creating dashboards that offer 20:20 vision

Analytics lead Julia Wilkins explains how bespoke visualisations can help show the full picture

When clients come to ICHP for support, they usually already have a good idea about where and how they want to make a difference for local communities, businesses and patients, of what they want to achieve and probably of how to go about it; they approach us to help test out those ideas and to get the evidence they need to show whether they are treading the right path and achieving the results they’re aiming for.

Much of what we do to achieve that involves gathering data, both in the planning and evaluation stages of a project, and then a key part of our role is to present that data in a way that’s easy to interpret and makes sense to the client, so that they can use it to inform their planning and decision-making and ultimately to make a positive impact.

This data visualisation element is a crucial part of the arc of supporting clients from having that great idea to making a difference.

Often hear us using the term ‘visualisations’

Traditionally, data might be presented as a ‘dashboard’, but this is an evolving area – which is why you’ll more often hear us using the term ‘visualisations’. When we talk about dashboards and visualisations, it really just means ways of presenting the data that we’ve analysed in a format that’s going to be useful – what we call ‘socialising the data’. This means tailoring and presenting data in such a way that it can be understood and utilised by any number of different audiences, from GPs and consultants to commissioners, executives and stakeholders.

We use a range of visualisation tools that each have different features, so we can choose the one that’s going to be most useful for each particular project. All the tools that we use – including atlases of variation, patient timelines or patient pathways, or reporting through Tableau and QlikView – can incorporate ‘drill down’ access to a deep level of data interrogation. Thanks to these new ways of presenting data, the dashboards and other visualisations we create aren’t like the static charts that were previously common; they can be much more interactive, which makes it easy for people using and interpreting the information to decide how far they want to be able to delve into the data.

We don’t expect other people to be experts on data; that’s our job

Once the data has been collated we can use the most appropriate of these tools to build a bespoke visualisation that can help bring it to life. It’s something we often advise on – we don’t expect other people to be experts on data; that’s our job. The way in which each visualisation that we develop works depends on the needs of each audience, and getting it just right can be an iterative process. We always start by talking to the client and making sure we understand exactly what they need the visualisation to deliver. We then work closely with them and anyone else involved (e.g. stakeholders) to come up with a suggested starting point, then we keep tweaking and testing until it’s right – and as we can do all this in-house it’s a very cost-effective way of getting exactly the right result.

Sometimes people want an infographic visualisation with interactive data elements; others are more focused on charts and maps – for example, commissioners investigating for health inequalities may want a series of heat maps that they can drill down into, or charts which clearly show whether each organisation is performing well. Whatever charts or diagrams are incorporated, we always make sure that we pull the data together in a clear and cohesive way so that the resulting visualisations convey an effective and impactful narrative.

As well as offering options on how data is presented, we can also incorporate data updates at different frequencies depending on requirements – visualisations can be updated automatically as new data is published or they can be static. For example, clients may want pdf versions that they take to external meetings, or they may want to log in and view up-to-date data every week or month.

Because we build the visualisations ourselves we can control every aspect of the final output and create something that really works for each individual client and their situation.

Working together, the ICHP team has a real in-depth understanding of the data, of the way it all works and of the different ways in which it can be presented. I really enjoy working with each individual client to understand their specific needs and tailor a visualisation that will deliver the data in a way that helps them see the best way forward.