Data into Action: Getting Your Data off the Shelf and into the Community

logo_na2016_pms274This is the third in a series of NACCHO Annual preview posts, which feature interviews with and essays from presenters in advance of NACCHO Annual 2016. This post offers a preview of the session, “Data to Action: Getting Your Data off the Shelf and into the Community.” Read the other posts in the series. Learn more about NACCHO Annual 2016 and register at

In 2013, the Eau Claire City-County (WI) Health Department, Mayo Clinic Health System, Sacred Heart Hospital, Marshfield Clinic, and United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley launched the Eau Claire Healthy Communities website, which serves as a one-stop-shop for all health data in the county and features other health resources and materials. With the assistance of the Medical College of Wisconsin, the group behind this health data portal received a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Healthy Wisconsin Partnership Program to research how to use the website to turn data into action. The partners that helped with the launch of the website have an agreement to partner on payment for the site and control of the information on the site. Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese and Medical College of Wisconsin Public Health Program Director Terry Brandenburg spoke to NACCHO Voice about the resulting toolkit they have developed to “really get that data active and working, not just sitting in a bound report in the health department.”

What prompted you to go beyond maintaining the Eau Claire Healthy Communities database to actively engaging target users of the data?

Giese: Twenty years ago, public health practitioners walked into a community meeting with stacks and stacks of data in paper form and said “Okay, here is all of the data on obesity.” That data would be very difficult to digest and very difficult to use to inform practice. Most of us have access to data electronically now, but it is still overwhelming and challenging to use. As a result, it isn’t being utilized to the extent that it could be.

Brandenburg: What we’ve seen in our practice experience is that we use the data for our community health assessment, and it’s being used internally by the health department, but that rich database hasn’t been maximized within the broader public health system.

Giese: Part of our project was about helping those who really should be using data to inform “next steps.” That could be the media telling a story, a policymaker making a decision, or community partners creating an intervention.

Brandenburg: Operating more along the lines of a research project, we were very deliberate in our methodology and identified barriers to determine what it is going to take for those community stakeholders to actually access that data and use it: It has to be valid; it has to be trusted in terms of the source; it has to be current; and it has to be readily available. If we overcome those barriers, then it will be used.

In answering the question of how to get that data out into the community, we isolated three separate sectors—the media, policymakers, and community stakeholders—that will maximize data’s use in terms of policy, programming, and really getting the community involved in the community’s health.

The three target groups were chosen because they are each critical in moving community health forward. If we’re really interested in Health in All Policies (HiAP), policymakers need credible, current, readily available information. For the media, we want them to be using accurate, valid data in their reporting. You see something that isn’t accurate in the news and it takes months sometimes to get that misconception out of people’s minds. But they can also deliver health messages very efficiently, so if we have that data for them to write the story they need to put a local spin on a national issue, it really gets that information out in the local community in an accurate way.

In terms of stakeholders, we actually have a coalition of stakeholders called the Eau Claire Healthy Communities that is really committed to improving community health. Data from the portal can be used for program design and evaluation, writing grants, and other ways that the health department is currently taking advantage of.

Those are our targets. We can see there is an opportunity to really get that data active and working, not just sitting in a bound report in the health department.

Giese: In addition to thinking about who we want to target with data, community partners are now demanding data in a new way. Every grant we write now requires us to express the need using data. Policymakers always require me to provide data when I have an “ask.” So, we know that not only is data complicated and there are barriers to getting data, but there is also increasing demand for public health officials to have data readily available.

Brandenburg: One of the things that is special about Eau Claire that we are taking advantage of is that community stakeholders, particularly the hospital system, chipped in. The community purchased a Web-based data portal, populated and maintained by the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, where the data resides. We are using the three target groups to get people to access the data and know how to use it, now that it is there. For example, a local reporter writing an article about Lyme disease can go into the database, because it is open-access, and find the cases of Lyme disease for a specific span of years. That timeliness is really, really key, so when you have it in an open database and it is viewed as accurate and trusted, it’s a great source for the media.

Tell us about toolkit you have created to help other LHDs turn data into action.

Brandenburg: One of the grant objectives was to not just create a plan to demonstrate the value of a data portal but also put in a format that other communities could use as a well. To this end, we created a toolkit that explains how we approached the issue and why we approached it in this way; then the methodology—focus groups, key informant analysis, meetings with key constituents; all of the forms, the invite letters, the presentations, the trainings we did for community members; and our evaluation plan, which includes tracking media stories and using Google analytics on the website. We’ve laid all of that out for individuals to replicate in their communities. The toolkit is more in line with regular public health practice, but with appendices that include templates for e-mails, our evaluation criteria, and other practical things that are part of good program management, which we are providing to the broader public health community.

How has communicating data in the manner proposed by your toolkit impacted public health in your community?

Giese: I’ll give you two examples. There was a policy decision being made by city council: there was a baseball field with fan decks where alcohol is served, and the baseball team wanted to expand the all-you-can-drink fan deck area.

Alcohol misuse is one of the top health priorities in this community, and in a city council meeting where they were discussing whether they would approve enlarging the all-you-can-drink space, I pulled up the health portal on the screen they were using for the presentation. They could see what alcohol data looked like for Eau Claire County and compare that to the state and the nation. The site has very clear visuals and it was an opportunity for city council members to see that site and think about what the data said as they were making a policy decision.

The representatives for the ballpark who were also at the presentation and saw this information withdrew their request, and council members were very vocal about how data was making a difference in their thinking about alcohol. That happened a year ago, and since then there have been a number of policy decisions that previously never would have been made, based on understanding our alcohol-related data. They are looking at it and using it as part of their decision-making process.

Fairly recently, Board of Health members were reviewing a grant application we submitted related to Safe Sleep. We presented some data about the issue, but during the board meeting one of the members pulled up the health portal and said “Lieske, show me where in this data it supports that we should be looking at infant mortality as a public health issue.”

The data did not show a real problem in Eau Claire with infant mortality because of the limitations of the available data. The policy maker wondered why we focused on an issue that did not appear to be driven by data. It was an opportunity to talk about the available infant mortality data and the challenges with public health data—not all data is readily available in forms that can answer every question that gets posed. During that discussion, we talked about what data was available to the board to help them decide whether to move forward with the grant and what data wasn’t available. We explained that we were trying to explore methods to get good local data and how we used that website to inform our interest in the topic in addition to other data sources.

Community members saying something is an important topic is also important—we don’t use quantitative data alone. I don’t believe any data site is a magic bullet, but I believe it is part of a nuanced conversation about how we can make better-informed decisions.

Brandenburg: I love the way your own board called you out.

Giese: They did! Right in the board meeting. I said “Good, you’re using this.”

Why do you go to NACCHO Annual?

Brandenburg: I’ve been going for over 20 years, and I try to get to it every year. Of all of the national conferences out there, if you’re a local public health professional, this hits right in the sweet spot. You’re with peers who are facing the same challenges and the same issues; you’re hearing about best practices from your peers; and you come away from it with so much knowledge.

Giese: It’s a wonderful opportunity to network with colleagues. We’re all very busy, so to be able to take a little space to actually talk to each other is so valuable. It’s a unique opportunity to have that time away to have really critical conversations, even with health officials from your own state.

Brandenburg: If you’re in local public health, this is really the conference to go to.

To learn more about Giese and Brandenburg’s vision for the future of their database and how you can develop a health data portal for your community, participate in their session at NACCHO Annual 2016. Check out the conference website for details on the dozens of sharing sessions available at