State of Obesity: Using data visualization for public health messaging


Every year, the Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) release an analysis report on obesity trends and statistics in the United States. Yet, with the information usually only available in PDF format, the team behind the report decided that to raise the public health profile of the obesity epidemic they needed to make it more accessible.

To this end, the State of Obesity online portal was launched with the help of the Center for Digital Information (CDI).

"The philosophy behind the State of Obesity digital project as a whole was that we could potentially do more, better, differently with this important data and information by taking a digital-native publishing approach. Part of this involved unpacking and restructuring years of data from annual report form. With that done, we set about thinking creatively how to produce a series of compelling interactive, visual representations that would powerfully communicate the information in ways that were previously unavailable to us in print and PDF. These choices were primarily driven by the desire to draw wider attention to the research data and make it easier to use, and we’ve been successful. As a bonus, we have also realized a lot of production efficiencies by embracing this digital-native, data-driven publishing strategy," explained Jeff Stanger, the founding director of CDI.

The portal contains a compilation of country overview and state-by-state interactive graphs, in-depth policy analysis and a selection of lists - each leveraging off the latest obesity and health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For example, to explore the CDC's September 2015 release of adult obesity data, the team constructed a map and line graph that interact with each other to compare the current state of obesity with historial trends. When you hover over a state on the map, its respective line in the graph is higlighted, allowing you to scrutinize the state's performance over time and in relation to the country overall. Moreover, the map can be narrowed down by region and year so that you can highlight regional trends or yearly quirks.


Image:  Oklahoma on the State of Obesity interactive map and graph

As well as the adult obesity page, the portal is continuously updated to highlight new themes or pressing issues, with a focus on state-by-state analysis.

"The state-by-state adult obesity rates are always the data most people are interested in, so we knew we needed that to be most prominent. We also wanted to make it easy to access all the data for a given state at once, so we created the state profile pages.  Beyond that, we've tried to come up with new features each year. This year, for instance, we do have an interactive map of state diabetes rates," said Brent Thompson, Senior Communications Officer at RWJF.

To create these visualizations, the team utilized a number different tools throughout the site, with the main interactive data visualizations, such as those higlighting adult obesity, childhood obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, employing a combination of d3, backbone, jquery, jquery sparkline, flot, topojson, and underscore.

For the time being, there is no direct download featuring allowing users to leverage off the team's custom restructing of the data; however, there are plans to make this available in the future.

Explore the State of Obesity portal here.

Check out further public health data at the CDC site here.