Reply To: What data viz tools are you using?

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Michael Edwards

Greetings RHINOs and welcome to the RHINO Forum on Data Visualization. I hope you were able to attend the webinar this morning that Amanda gave. I found it very informative, and I especially liked the brief history of data visualizations that she presented. If you didn’t see it, go to the link on the Forum Post announcing the webinar, and you can see the recording.

I would like to tell you about my long history of supporting Ministries of Health with the development of computerized data visualisation tools (Decision Support Systems or DSS) linked to national health information systems. My first system was in Niger where in 1994 we implemented a DOS-based DSS. We were working on the analysis of the Nation Health Information System data (SNIS, or Système National d’Information Sanitaire) for the annual report. We needed certain analyses, like time-trend graphs for key diseases, and a graph of the top 10 diseases at the national level, and we thought that if we needed these graphs for the national level, then they were also needed at the region, district and health facility level as well. So we developed a system that was flexible so that any indicator in the SNIS system could be graphed in some pre-defined graphic templates – time trend graphs, regional comparison histograms, and pie charts. The data was in dBase III, and we developed the DSS using Clipper and dGE (data Graphics Extender).

When everyone started using Windows, people would see our DOS-based system and say “That system does exactly what we want, but we want it in Windows”. So we started developing Microsoft Access-based Decision Support Systems with Active-X objects Graphics Server for the graphs and ESRI’s MapObjects LT for thematic maps. We chose these tools because they had royalty free distribution, so we could distribute our applications without having to make people pay for the application. They just needed Microsoft Office.

Now, people see our Access-based systems and they say “That system does exactly what we want, but we want it web-based and open source”. For these web-based Decision Support Systems, we are using the open-source programming languages PHP and Java Script, and we are using HighCharts for the graphs and the Google Maps API (Application Program Interface) for the maps. We are also working to develop links to both routine and non-routine data sources using existing APIs. For routine health information system data, the DHIS 2 application has an API that we are working with to connect with routine data, and the DHS (Demographic and Health Survey) also has an API that you can use to link to non-routine survey data.

Speaking of the DHIS 2 and DHS, both have built-in Decision Support tools that you can use. DHIS 2 has the Data Visualizer and DHS has the StatCompiler. We’d love to hear from those of you who have used these tools, and what your experiences are with the use of these tools.

Thanks, MikeE