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Science, Maths & Technology

Don’t be afraid of facts and figures

Updated Monday, 4th November 2013

Numbers and data aren't confined to mathematics—they're everywhere.

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Global map in sea of numbers Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Michael Brown | Health care and social care, the Open University faculty I work in, is awash with numbers.

Targets, outcomes, financial constraints, risk assessments: these are all ways we use numbers to think about issues in health and social care.

Basic principles of observation, measurement and assessment are essential to decisions that are constantly being made with regard to the effectiveness and affordability of health interventions and to a society’s response to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens.

Data analysis skills are crucial for individual, collective and institutional decision making.

This has been the case for some time. And while methods vary by discipline, an emphasis on accurate data and on honest collection and presentation of data remains the same.

Now, however, the sheer volume of data available using widely available technologies enables both the general public and health and social care practitioners to access masses of raw data.

But, with these new technologies for gathering and scrutinising data, everyone needs to be confident enough to ask some key questions such as:

  • What are the data telling us?
  • What is missing from the data?
  • What should we learn from the data and how should the data be shared?
  • And how, if you work in health and social care, should practice change in the light of these data?

Today, it’s not about access to data, which we now have. It's about acquiring a few data analysis techniques that will mean many more people can answer questions accurately and can contribute meaningfully to public, private and professional debates.

However, the nature of health and social care means that numbers are rarely, if ever, enough to give a clear picture. Figures can only reflect elements of human experience.

So some of the most intractable and important, practical and ethical questions involved in health and social care require a firm grasp of relevant numbers.

For example, is youth crime really a growing threat to the UK society? What is the impact of being born too early on later health? How safe is it to have a baby at home? What are the key influences on life expectancy in the early twenty first century? Do more men than women round the world live with non-communicative diseases such as diabetes?

These are the sorts of questions that we can only begin to answer once we have access to the appropriate data and we're able to analyse it.

Investigate some data yourself

In the following sections, Dr Tony Hirst and Dr Mark Smith will explore some different data analysis techniques. For now, you can explore an interesting dataset to get a feel for the sorts of questions you can answer.

Go to the interactive map on the World Health Organization website, which shows mortality rates around the world due to non-communicable diseases (NCD). An NCD is a disease that is not infectious or transmissable.

  • What parts of the world have the highest mortality rates due to NCD?
  • Are there differences between male and female death rates?
  • Which countries have the lowest rates?
  • What reasons do you think may lie behind the different rates?

Reveal some tips and suggestions

Death rates are shown per 100,000 people.

There are separate maps for men and women. Click ‘View more indicators’ on the left hand side of the screen to view the maps for males and females.

Use the column entitled ‘Country’ to see mortality rates from each country.

Roll your mouse over the map or the bar chart below to see the mortality rates in specific countries – the bar chart shows you the different rates in relation to each other.

Click on ‘View Static Maps’ to see worldwide death rates from specific diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.





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