This is a follow-up post to my seventh article in the Visualisation Insights series which I published earlier this week. The purpose of this companion series is to optimise the learning opportunities from each insights article, reflecting on the ideas, issues and observations to emerge. Why did I choose this subject? As I explained in the main article  I first came across Brian when I discovered an article in the Health Services Journal (subscription required) entitled ‘Demystifying data’ in which he was quoted about the importance of the visual display of data. His opening statement that “3d charts are the first refuge of scoundrels” was music to my ears so I soon recognised somebody I would be interested in interviewing! Aside from this appealing viewpoint I wanted to discover more about the information management challenges Brian and his organisation faced as custodians of the analysis and communication of such important information. As I have suggested, this responsibility makes him one of the most important and prominent information professionals in the UK. I was interested in learning more about the complexities of making NHS information accessible to the general public, as well as other stakeholder groups, finding out what techniques, methods and technologies they employ to accomplish this most effectively. Finally, with only limited knowledge about the background and purpose of the Information Centre and wanted to learn how it came to fruition, what impact it was having and what its perceived future trajectory as a public body was. Impressions prior to the interview? As somebody who has occupied a variety of analytical roles in UK public service organisations, I am hugely sympathetic to the great challenges that exist with the responsibility of recording, handling, analysing and communicating data relating to such activity. The unique and vast nature of NHS activity makes data and information management more complex than almost any other context, but it is also more crucial to get it right. My initial impressions from reading up a limited amount of material about Brian and from exploring the Information Centre website was a very positive one. I was encouraged by the attitudes and principles Brian seemed to be championing and the transparency, rigour and accessibility of the Information Centre's online statistical provision and functionality. Impressions after the interview? My first observation relates to Brian's strong statistical background which contrasts with some of the other Insights interviews I've conducted where we've seen marketing professionals, journalists, programmers and designers, to name but a few. Statistics would probably be considered the most traditional of pathways followed by many of the most prominent names in the visualisation field, such as Tufte and Tukey. The status of the Information Centre is particularly interesting, as it has been established for a fair number of years now and appears to be maturing into a second phase of purpose, evolving from the provision of statutory information and official government statistics, and moving towards greater emphasis on what is useful for the NHS and patients:
A large proportion of the Information Centre’s workload involves producing official statistics for central government to help develop and account for health policy. However, as Brian points out, since its inception, the organisation is moving more and more towards a focus on what is most useful for the NHS and Local Government in order to help improve their services. This is a hugely positive trend.
Increased centralisation and, therefore improved efficiencies and thoroughness of processes, will be a boost to the organisation, potentially creating new capacity to engage in more exploratory information that will help achieve this focus towards the NHS and public. Particularly, there is a great effort on improving information on quality of service measures which are very difficult indicators to construct. It is really refreshing and encouraging to see Brian's appreciation of the true value of information and its potential in helping to enhance the quality of care the NHS provides. He recognises its role in the organisational system and the importance of keeping it as a by-product of care activity, not making it the activity itself:
“Information is not a free good so there is an increasing need to make best use of it, making it work in combination rather in isolation and joining up a single cohesive story... The information tail should not wag the service dog."
The challenges of communicating information about health care encapsulates the motives behind effective visualisation - striving to create clarity and perceptual access to a subject that is complex. It is not about diluting or dumbing-down the complexity of a subject, but making it more accessible through simplicity and elegance of communication. I am particularly fascinated to see how the Information Centre embraces the potential gold mine that is qualitative data emerging in unfathomable quantities from social media sources such as Facebook and in particular Twitter. This could be a huge area of exploration for his team to see how sentiment analysis can be used to identify levels and variance of perception of NHS care. My final reflection concerns the overriding message I picked up in our conversation that the Information Centre is constantly looking to improve its offerings, enhance its capabilities and optimise its value and influence:
“If a lot more of the information around the NHS was more readily available and was being used and understood, especially by the public. That would be a success. We will have also developed better measures for the quality of care. But overall, we will have succeeded if the Health system was beginning to use the information effectively to improve its services. Data is for information which is for improving public services.”
Acknowledgment Many thanks to Brian for agreeing to meet up with me and take part in this interview - it was a pleasure to spend time in his company chatting about visualisation matters. Also for his patience in waiting ages for me to actually transcribe the interview and convert it into a (hopefully) accurate portrayal of our discussion. I wish him and his colleagues at the Information Centre all the best for the future. Look out for future insights articles, with many interesting interviews and interviewees lined up…
Visualize This: Flowing Data makeover challenge
Strata Conference: Raffle winner and recommended schedule