Imagine finding data on the prevalence of adult diabetes; rates of premature death, new HIV diagnoses, and rat complaints; and the percentage of children living in poverty – and 72 more indicators of Philadelphia’s health in one place. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) has released an interactive data visualization tool to do just that. They also shared four open datasets for bulk download to inform and engage individuals and communities in reducing health inequities and promoting public health in Philadelphia.

Newly Released Resources at a Glance:

  • PDPH’s new interactive digital tool – the Community Health Explorer – allows residents to view charts and a map of 77 health indicators in an interactive and visual way along four ‘dimensions’: by geography, racial disparity, chronologically, and in comparison to other large cities.    
  • Residents can also download the four open datasets on in order to do their own analyses.
  • PDPH will update the datasets in Fall of 2016, and annually thereafter.
  • The code for the Explorer is open source, so other cities could use the platform’s code to showcase their own data in engaging ways.


Digital Transformation in City Services

“Open Data represents a commitment to an accessible and accountable municipal government,” said Rebecca Rhynhart, Chief Administrative Officer for the City of Philadelphia. “Taking it a step further by leveraging that data to create resources – like the Community Health Explorer – highlights our efforts to digitally transform city processes and realize our potential to be as effective, efficient and helpful as possible to the residents we serve.”  

The Explorer demonstrates what can be achieved from bringing together programming skills, open data, and subject matter expertise towards a social impact goal. Lauren Ancona, Senior Data Scientist for the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT), was the primary developer of the Explorer software. Karissa Demi – another ODDT developer – assisted in addressing initial bugs and polishing the code. Through a cross-departmental partnership with PDPH staff, ODDT refined the tool to clarify content and improve the design.

“We wanted to make this massive collection of information easier to navigate, while giving PDPH the ability to update the data independently,” said Ancona. “Charting data on the web is sometimes challenging: often, graphs don’t adjust well to mobile screens (which makes up over a third of City web traffic), and citizens with visual difficulty or who are using screen readers might not be able to access any information at all. This open source application is a first attempt to solve for those problems, and we plan to continue to iterate with feedback – contributions are welcome!”   

Ancona focused on making the design easy for public users to navigate, and PDPH’s need to update the data in the future with minimal technical support. The charts are responsive, which means they automatically resize to fit mobile screens. For each chart, the Explorer also renders a hidden table containing the underlying data, allowing screen readers to read it aloud for visually-challenged users. To ensure PDPH can augment the data as needed, Ancona implemented a tool built by Tim Wisniewski, Chief Data Officer, that allows PDPH to update any content or data by simply editing a spreadsheet. Each row of data produces a corresponding chart in the Explorer interface.  

Hosting the data and software on GitHub allows other cities to easily replicate the architecture and populate it with their own data. In this way, the potential reach of this tool to track public health, or other goals, is global.


Enabling Partners in Public Health

Developed to be user-friendly for a broad audience, the Explorer uses charts and a map to visualize public health in Philadelphia. The 77 featured health indicators arose from PDPH’s annual Community Health Assessment (CHA) – a systematic review of population health in Philadelphia. The CHA includes indicators reflecting health behaviors, health conditions, health care factors, and social and environmental determinants of health.

To complete the CHA, PDPH collects and curates data from several disparate sources – from the federal-level Census, to local nonprofits as well as from PDPH’s own programs. Releasing this information as open datasets eliminates the burden of searching for this information, enabling residents to instead focus their efforts on what they can contribute to improve public health. The potential audience and immediate use of the Explorer could include:

  • Individual community members that want to look at the public health data for their neighborhood and start health-support groups.
  • Agencies delivering health services to strategically plan the location and types of programs they offer.
  • Community-based nonprofits who want to highlight health indicators in grants to support a service that will help address a public health issue.
  • Advocates who want to prepare to talk with legislators about needs in their community.
  • Journalists covering public health stories.
  • Researchers conducting studies to contribute their findings to the field of knowledge on public health.


Easing the Search for Health Care

The Community Health Explorer is not the first interactive tool based on open data that PDPH has released. Last year, they made it possible to search for health care in relation to any address you enter – making it easier for individuals seeking care and social service agencies looking to refer clients. This interactive map of health centers  shows the location and phone number of Federally Qualified Health Centers in Philadelphia that provide free or low-cost comprehensive primary care for children, adults, pregnant women, and seniors. The raw data used to create the health center map is also available for download.

Keep in Touch

To stay tuned into PDPH’s work, you can follow their Twitter or Facebook. Share your ideas on or plans to use this data with or join us on the public open data google forum. To find other available datasets from the City of Philadelphia, visit OpenDataPhilly.


Photo caption: A screenshot of the Community Health Explorer tool collaboratively developed by the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.