Freeing the health data

The World Health Organization (WHO) has published an editorial on "why health numbers matter." As someone who admires the efforts of Swivel and other similar organizations to free the data, I was happy to see this:

Google, Wikipedia and other information resources have changed theworld in many ways, but their users generally search via words, not numbers. Now, those who think about and work with numbers are helping the world’s numeracy catch up with its literacy....

Numerical literacy? I love the idea of "numeracy."

Why is this important? Global health threats make the world seem ever smaller. Viruses and other illnesses ignore borders and leapfrog from continent to continent, exploiting new connections between nations, goods and people. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) show how local outbreaks can have global impacts within days. Yet the tools to combat these illnesses do not travel nearly as efficiently as their pathogens....

Think of a medical study that is backed by experimental data and statistical analysis. This study gets published in an academic journal, and its findings are picked up by the mainstream media. The coverage helps shape political debate, policy, funding and public opinion. It is important that all of this information – both the mass-media sound bites and the original experimental data and raw numbers – is widely available. While no one will dispute the importance of publicity, access to the original data is equally critical so that research, interpretation and experimentation will continue.

It's often been said that the Internet improves information access. And with interpretive skill information can lead to knowledge. But without access to whatever numerical data is being bandied about, the full potential of the Web will go unrealized.

Good on Swivel.