Media company harnesses health data for stories that connect with communities

technology / Article

September 13, 2013 by David Kansas

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David Kansas is chief operating officer and head of content for American Public Media. Below, he writes about emerging opportunities for the media to use data to help the public make better health decisions. His post is part of our Knight News Challenge: Health series. The challenge, which offers $2.2 million in funding for ideas to help harness data and information for the health of communities, closes Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 5 p.m. ET. Photo credit: Flickr user Deb Nystrom.

The Minnesota State Fair—like other similar events—typically is not synonymous with a healthy lifestyle. Deep-fried Twinkies, grease-gobbed cheese curds, giant turkey legs and sugary mini-doughnuts: That’s just a sampling of the fair fare! At Minnesota Public Radio, we wanted to inject some healthier notions into the state fair experience.

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Our first thought: how to use health data to help folks think about the food-on-the-stick emporium in different ways. Collaborating with HealthPartners, a local health insurance company, we distributed pedometers to fairgoers and launched a contest that would reward those who hoofed around the grounds more than others. As part of that effort, we talked to fairgoers about how understanding health data and information can help people make wiser health-related decisions, especially when it comes to fair food.

This small step into the health arena is part of Healthy States, a company-wide initiative from American Public Media. The Healthy States project encompasses top-flight journalism at our news operations at Minnesota Public Radio News, Southern California Public Radio and Marketplace. It involves the non-news areas of our company as well.

A big part of Healthy States involves health data—and there’s no shortage of such information. Our audiences often find themselves overwhelmed by health data and health choices. We want to play a role in “sense-making” and storytelling that will help our audiences better understand health data in ways that benefit them and their communities.

Understanding health data can drive different kinds of stories.  We are using our Public Insight Network, a collection of more than 200,000 sources across the country, to uncover meaningful anecdotal stories around health and intersecting that qualitative information with quantitative health data. In July, Minnesota Public Radio used the Public Insight Network to produce a data-driven series on mental health issues in Minnesota. This series used both the network and health data to provide a more complete, comprehensive picture of mental health in Minnesota and around the country.

We also are using health data to drive conversations and convenings with our audiences. This fall, we will use that data to drive events that focus on hunger issues, millennials and health care, and women and health. Data alone doesn’t suffice. By intelligently interweaving data with stories, we can have a sharper impact on the communities we serve.

Our interest in health data also extends to how policymakers are using that data, especially as it relates to the Affordable Care Act. We recently broadcast and published a story that outlines how groups advocating for the Affordable Care Act are using health data to reach out to the right people in order to educate them about the law and its implications.

Looking forward, we are imagining new ways to bring health data alive, especially through data visualization projects. We also want to find clever ways to use data that will engage our curious audiences and the communities we serve. For instance, can we work with health data and our membership to create pledge drives that revolve around health data as well as financial support for our organization? If we could link a simple biofeedback device and app, such as a FitBit, with our members, perhaps the next drive has twin goals: an amount of money raised and a collective number of steps taken by our members.

We know that the amount of health data is increasing rapidly. We believe all that data can help drive storytelling in new, meaningful ways for our audiences. Moreover, data will increasingly tell us where our audiences are, what they are doing and even what they want or need. This is about more than health. It’s about using data to intersect stories with people to drive deeper engagement.

We are excited about Knight News Challenge: Health. We look forward to seeing the smart ideas that will help journalists and news organizations better tell the stories that will help people make sense of the complicated and vital world of health and health care.

Knight Foundation has committed $2 million to News Challenge: Health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will award prizes of $50,000, $30,000 and $20,000 respectively for the top three projects that “best combine public health data and health care data.” The California HealthCare Foundation will award $100,000 to one or more ideas that enhance the use of health data in local policymaking. For more visit newschallenge.org.

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