Public health (PH) data can generally be characterized as big data. The efficient and effective use of this data determines the extent to which PH stakeholders can sufficiently address societal health concerns as they engage in a variety of work activities. As stakeholders interact with data, they engage in various cognitive activities such as analytical reasoning, decision-making, interpreting, and problem solving. Performing these activities with big data is a challenge for the unaided mind as stakeholders encounter obstacles relating to the data’s volume, variety, velocity, and veracity. Such being the case, computer-based information tools are needed to support PH stakeholders. Unfortunately, while existing computational tools are beneficial in addressing certain work activities, they fall short in supporting cognitive activities that involve working with large, heterogeneous, and complex bodies of data. This paper presents visual analytics (VA) tools, a nascent category of computational tools that integrate data analytics with interactive visualizations, to facilitate the performance of cognitive activities involving big data. Historically, PH has lagged behind other sectors in embracing new computational technology. In this paper, we discuss the role that VA tools can play in addressing the challenges presented by big data. In doing so, we demonstrate the potential benefit of incorporating VA tools into PH practice, in addition to highlighting the need for further systematic and focused research.
Keywords: big data, analytics, public health informatics, visual analytics, analytical reasoning, interactive visualizations, human-information interaction