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Be creative, be bold and use #HSRVis for your #HSR!

By Erlyn Macarayan
on August 14, 2015

Imagine you’re in a room full of computer monitors and while inside, you ask “Which vaccine would have been most cost-efficient for disease X?”. Only seconds later, the room would turn into an amazing room full of data presented in very engaging and interactive visuals showing you state of the art simulations, discussing your different policy options, and working with you as you decide. Sounds like a sci-fi movie or at the very least an Alphabet start-up? Well, perhaps it is (for now), but using great visuals and presenting our data in a more engaging and responsive way can definitely help us move forward.  Considering #HSRVis (health systems research visualization) is definitely worth it, and probably a must in our times, if we don’t want our audiences with ever decreasing attention spans to doze off.

Of course, you’ll always need a good narrative and pitch, but through visuals we can better engage our audience, explore our findings better, and more effectively communicate and translate evidence into policies/actions. For researchers, creativity ( call it a  “spark of genius”)  has always been a must. But our creativity shouldn’t stop with our research, or even with publishing and sharing within our networks, making ‘creative’ use of social media in the process. More efforts are also needed in how we can more effectively and efficiently disseminate such evidence to a wider audience.

This was a key takeaway – almost an epiphany – I had from participating at a recent  Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education in Maine, USA . At the event, tools were showcased that researchers across various fields use to better visualize data. The overarching theme for the 2015 conference was “Grand Challenges in the Use of Visualization in Science and Education”, so I immediately felt at home there as a young global health voice.   Yet, it was very interesting to see how advanced technology is for other areas, whereas global health and health decision-making processes lag a bit behind (with the  IHME  team and Hans “public health wizard” Rosling as some of the notable exceptions).

Let me give you some examples of the fancy advances in other areas and sectors.

Nowadays, museums wouldn’t just show remains; if they have resources, they animate, for example, dinosaurs and how these creatures lived during their era. Museums allow the interface to interact. Or as the tagline goes for one case, “a vast collection of online experiences that feed your curiosity”.

Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with all its outer space expeditions is putting emphasis on how these expeditions can allow us, humble “earthlings”, to better experience walking around Mars, Vesta, or the moon using “virtual reality” devices. Michael Jackson would have loved it.

Planetariums are now growing ever more gigantic with stunning visualizations of the latest discoveries about our universe – giving you a “flying” feel throughout. The (US) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now shows its planetary data in a room-sized animated globe.

For Iron Man fans (and especially the fans of Tony Stark’s Jarvis, an intelligent voice-activated computer assistant of the main protagonist), check out similar innovations that automatically translate natural language queries into visualizations.

Medicine is following suit with animating and modeling biomolecular processes. Technology allowed us to explore the minutest things we can’t see with our bare eyes and better explore neurons, with bigger displays and navigation capacities.

Technology and the need for evidence-informed decision-making have also already sparked decision theatres, which actively engage researchers and leaders to visualize solutions (e.g. policy options) to complex problems.

Creativity (including visualizations) doesn’t necessarily have to be “high-tech”. Scientific American and National Academy of Sciences publish evidence with more creative and engaging infographics and covers.

In the 21st century, “big data” is getting bigger and more complex, and technological advances are going faster than ever. Also, in the new SDG era, links and integration of health with other sectors and SDG goals and targets will become far more important. So we do have our work cut out if we want to convey our messages effectively and engagingly, whether we “embed”  decision makers in our decision theatres of the future or not. Data visualization is one smart way to do so, even if sometimes less will still be more.


But now over to the mundane world again. As the current global heath social media moderator for Health Systems Global, let me shamelessly take advantage of the IHP forum I get today, and advertise some of our upcoming activities.

On August 20, Health Systems Global organizes a twitter chat on people-centered research methods for health systems development. Join the conversation by using the hashtag  #HSR2015 and you might also want to share your creative juices on how we can innovate more with our research (including via data visualization) using #HSRVis. We can start with infographics, photos, documentaries or animations about the research methods we use or to clarify what a “systems-thinking” approach is. How do we give others without any prior knowledge of our research a clearer picture of what we do? How do we creatively share basic concepts to engage our target audience(s) more? Join #HSR2015 and share your #HSRVis!

Speaking of innovation, Health Systems Global just got more creative with a revamped logo and website. Soon, a learning center  is to follow, which will include commentaries on new research methods from leading health systems researchers, insights from practitioners and policymakers, videos, webinars and other resources. You can also share thoughts with HSG’s various technical working groups. As we prepare for the Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Vancouver, we can start thinking of how we can better use available tools to understand, explore and communicate evidence. How to be more inclusive and multidisciplinary? More informative yet engaging? With better visualizations of our health systems (research) universe, we should catch up with Hollywood, NASA and the rest of the world.

I challenge you, put effort in how we communicate and disseminate evidence. Be creative and innovative. Think out-of-the box. Go boldly where you hadn’t been before. Awaken the Hans Rosling hidden deep down in you. And of course, don’t forget to use #HSRVis in Vancouver!


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