The Power of Small Data: Doubt those who say they have no numbers

Published on
February 16, 2016

You don’t have to be a math whiz to make this calculation. If you see a chart, there must be data behind it.

Rebecca Plevin was working for Vida en el Valle in 2012 when she saw a presentation that included a chart about the amount of money the state of California was spending on prisoners who had been stricken by valley fever.

It was a big sum.

There might be a story there, Plevin thought. So she asked the presenter if she could have access to the data that went into the chart.

Sorry, she was told, it’s not publicly available. Plevin did the best thing she could have done. She doubted.

She asked if the presenter could check with her boss. It was part of a public presentation, after all. So it made sense that the underlying numbers would be usable by a reporter trying to understand a matter of critical public import: whether a preventable disease was costing taxpayers millions.

Ultimately, after a lot of calling and emailing and following up, Plevin was able to get the data. She wrote an excellent entry in the Just One Breath series, saying:

California Correctional Health Care Services foots an annual bill of about $23 million for sending inmates with valley fever to hospitals outside the prison, guarding these patients, and for their antifungal treatments. That’s about what it costs to build a new school in Fresno County. Not included in that sum are the costs the state prison system racks up treating valley fever within the prison walls and the costs attributed to expensive, long-term care for patients with complications of valley fever, such as meningitis.

Everyone at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting this past week should be sending notes to presenters this week asking them for the numbers behind their PowerPoints.

Where else should you look?

Any report you pick up on the table in the back of the room. Those tables and figures? They had to come from data.

Journal articles, of course, are loaded with data, but they usually represent just a slice of the picture. Ask for the full time trend.

Anything that you can see on an organization’s web page likely is generating data of some sort. For example, if one of the state health exchanges is boasting of a particularly successful week – or day – in generating interest and signing people up, ask for the data.

In 2013, Covered California – the state exchange tasked with administering Obamacare – reported that 5 million people had visited the exchange’s website on day one.

 But Chad Terhune at the Los Angeles Times wrote a story the next day explaining that, in fact, not even 1 million people had visited. Terhune wrote:

State officials said the Covered California website got 645,000 hits during the first day of enrollment, far fewer than the 5 million it reported Tuesday. The state exchange had cited the 5 million figure as a sign of strong consumer interest and a major reason people had so much difficulty using its $313-million online enrollment system.

But what if, try as you might, no one will turn over that big, beautiful database that you hope will answer all your questions. I’ll write about that in my next post.

[Photo by Craig Chew-Moulding via Flickr.]