The Power of Small Data: Ask questions that demand answers

Published on
January 25, 2015

When you’re searching for a question to guide your data reporting that will generate answers that will inform your audience, you should think about scope and impact.

How big or small is the problem you are trying to explain or expose?

And what is the potential impact of your story?

Jacob Anderson-Marshall found a problem of massive proportions for a piece he wrote for HIV Plus magazine in December 2014. And he posed a question that was sure to grab attention:

Why are Americans fixated on an epidemic that is half a world away rather than on the epidemic ravaging southern states on our own shores? Is it because the disproportionate number of Americans dying of HIV-related conditions are African-American?

The epidemic that was fixating so many Americans at the time was Ebola. Meanwhile, HIV infections were causing — and continue to cause — much more damage, especially among black Americans.

Anderson-Marshall crunched the numbers for nine Southern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Tennessee. He made a simple calculation that drew a powerful conclusionBy comparinge population size to the number of new HIV cases in those states, he was able to draw a powerful conclusion. He wrote:

Residents of these states are particularly vulnerable: Although they make up only 22 percent of the total U.S. population, they represent nearly 32 percent of new HIV diagnoses.

He then broke down the situation when it comes to black Americans in particular. Using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he showed how a significant proportion of black Americans with HIV are not receivingbeing adequately treatedment toor to suppress have the virus suppressed, a true shame in an era where antiretroviral therapies have transformed HIV from an extremely fatal disease into one that is increasingly manageable. Anderson-Marshall He wrote:

Of all African-Americans with HIV, 81 percent have been diagnosed and 62 percent linked to care, but only 34 percent remain in regular care and even fewer (29 percent) are on antiretroviral medication.

Then he drew his strongest comparison.

These statistics add up to a disturbing result: HIV-positive African-Americans are more likely to die from AIDS-related causes. Although black people make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 56 percent of all deaths due to HIV or AIDS complications in 2009.

Anderson-Marshall doesn’t just leave readers with that stunning fact and then ask them to figure out their own solutions to the problem. He continues to pose new questions and answer them with data. He looks at access to medical care, poverty, literacy, and other issues. The piece is a textbook example of posing important questions and using data to answer them.

Related posts

The Power of Small Data: How Rwanda tried to save lives with better math

The Power of Small Data: Why you probably don’t need ‘big data’ for your stories

The Power of Small Data: Lessons learned from a number-crunching career

[Photo by Bordecia34 via Flickr.]