Imagine you are a foreign aid worker trying to persuade a senior politician in a developing world country to introduce a pneumococcus vaccination programme. It’s not just a case of stressing how the bacterium causes diseases including pneumonia, meningitis, and sinusitis, and kills over a million children under the age of five every year worldwide. The politician has to decide how to allocate scant resources. How does the death toll compare with malaria and AIDS? Aren't road traffic accidents a bigger problem? Has vaccination been a success in neighbouring countries?
These statistics exist, but you don't have the relevant reports and academic papers to hand. And even when you do have the information, a list of numbers may not the best way to express the strength of your case.
By creating new and innovative visual displays out of oceans of data, Christopher Murray hopes his tool can change this situation for the better. Called GBD Compare, users can rapidly determine which diseases are most harmful to children in Africa, or view how the developing and developed worlds compare in terms of heart disease, all with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
The data viz tool processes data from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report, which compiles statistics, charts and graphs on causes of death and disease. “The thing that’s really neat about the visualisations is they allow people to see the problem in context – in the context of all the other problems, how it’s changing over time, how it compares to other countries,” says Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation (IMHE), based in Seattle.
When Murray shows this tool to people outside the academic world of public health, Murray says, they immediately get it. “That just totally changes who you can engage in a thoughtful discussion about what are the key health problems and where they’re going,” he says.
The new tool has the enthusiastic backing of no less an advocate than Bill Gates, and, just three months after its launch, it's already leading to changes in health policies.
Murray’s interest in international public health was sparked at age 10, in 1973, when his father, then a cardiologist at the University of Minnesota, decided to take a sabbatical year and volunteer in Africa. The family raised donations, flew to the UK, bought a couple of Land Rovers, and, recalls Murray, drove out across the Sahara to eastern Niger to take over a hospital that had been built but never opened.
“We all had jobs,” says Murray. “Mine was – being at the bottom of the totem pole there – in charge of the pharmacy.” While his father met with patients and wrote prescriptions, the young Murray organised and stored the pills and dished the appropriate ones out. That year overseas was “extraordinarily influential on everyone in the family,” says Murray. His parents repeatedly returned to volunteer in Africa, and both his siblings now work in health. Murray went on to study medicine and health economics, eventually working for the World Health Organization (WHO) and heading Harvard University’s Initiative for Global Health.
In 1991, the World Bank sought his help in creating a comprehensive policy document on international health problems. The result of Murray’s partnership with Alan Lopez at the WHO was the first GBD. The GBD released official health statistics on the burden of disease, beginning with 1990 data on 50 causes of death across seven international regions. A decade later, the team once again compiled health data for the WHO, along with legions of maps, charts, and graphs, based primarily on what the authors thought would be useful.