Why Data Storytelling Holds the Key to Effective Public Policy As a data enthusiast, one of my favorite quotes comes from Edward Tufte, who famously r...
This is the number of lives lost to COVID-19 in Maricopa County as of April 25th, 2022.
17,103 people who were loved. 17,103 people who loved. 17,103 dreams deferred and families heartbroken. They had names. They had stories. They can not be reduced to another data point on a time-series chart. Behind this number is humanity. As Lilliana Cardenas told us,
“One of the challenges we faced in serving our community in the early part of the pandemic was being able to extend our reach beyond the urban core. Maricopa is a large county with many residents encompassing urban, suburban, and rural communities. Even though we had strong relationships with some cities and community partners throughout the valley, we still had so much ground to cover and relationships to develop to ensure services and information reached all corners of the county.”
We lovingly refer to Maricopa County Health Department as one of the “Three Musketeers” — one of the first three Health Departments to join the mySidewalk family in late 2018. We had no idea then the momentum these departments would spark, how many other departments would follow their lead, and what awaited us less than two years later when the pandemic changed the field forever. The Maricopa team inspired us to investigate our language and our approach; their impression on our Public Health solutions is truly immeasurable.
When the team came to us for support in creating a COVID-19 data story, we didn’t hesitate to jump in and help. Once we saw the breadth of what they were attempting to accomplish, we knew this was going to be more than a single page on a dashboard. We knew this was something bigger and bolder. A story of this magnitude required a new approach — one that wove stories and numbers together in an organic, powerful way. Set for public release in mid-May of this year, this dashboard is unlike any other story our team has tackled.
Most of our Public Health partners collect primary data; they might, with a strong project, collect hundreds of insights. When Maricopa County told us their final number of respondents, our jaws hit the floor. They had thousands of responses to their COVID-19 impact study, including over 4,000 open-ended responses rich with moving experiences. Lilliana gave us some insight into how they were able to collect so much data:
“We provided mini-grants to support community partners in promoting and collecting surveys. We also took advantage of vaccine events in the community and set up survey opportunities with tablets and links so the surveys could be conducted on digital devices while folks waited 15 minutes after their vaccine. We continued to take advantage of all opportunities to get in front of our community and encourage participation. We pride ourselves on our resourcefulness and creativity to make it relevant and accessible. I believe the key to getting this level of engagement is being intentional and committed. Our decisions were rooted in ensuring that everyone had a chance to share their opinion, and making the work relevant to our partners.”
Working together, the combined Maricopa-mySidewalk team tackled the overwhelming challenge of structuring the story. Themes emerged: reactions to government response, sources of information (and misinformation), and the pandemic straw that broke the camel’s back in already strained households. What stuck with mySidewalk, though, were the stories that illuminated divisions. Here is a headline quote from the dashboard that we can’t stop coming back to:
The Maricopa dashboard isn’t just about the numbers, it’s about the fears and grief of the collective. We love quantitative data — we’ve built our whole business on creating better data — but for this project, the numbers play a supporting role to the stories that deserve the spotlight. We spent more time creating beautiful images worthy of these stories than we did deciding whether to use a pie chart or a bar chart. Our attention was rightly focused on creating an experience to elevate Maricopa's voice. Good data storytelling doesn’t shy away from the truth, even when it’s painful to read. We are proud to partner with Maricopa as they rebuild their communities and strive for health equity.
mySidewalk will be on the ground as Maricopa County unveils their findings at the American Hospital Association’s Accelerating Health Equity Conference May 10-12, and we’d love to connect with others while we’re there. To learn more about the event, our approach to data storytelling, or our massive quantitative data library, tell us about yourself and we’ll reach out.
Want to hear more about this project? Check out this awesome conversation we had with the Maricopa team (as well as our partners down the road in Kansas) about COVID-related data innovation.
Dr. Sarah Martin is Vice President of Strategic Communications for mySidewalk and is responsible for developing new ways to help clients change the world. Sarah came to mySidewalk from the field of Public Health, most recently as Deputy Director for the KCMO Health Dept. Her work lives at the intersection of public policy and health outcomes, focusing on combining Public Health and Healthcare into a force to be reckoned with. Sarah received a Ph.D. and MPP in Public Policy and Economics from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. She also received an MPH in Epidemiology from Cal where she specialized in methods for Social Epidemiology and Epigenetics.
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